Soldiers of the Short Grass
It is not often that a book review starts at the end of the book rather than at its beginning but in the case of a new history of the Curragh Camp there is ample reason for such an unconventional approach. This is because the author, Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Harvey, has some perspicacious things to say about the future of the Camp and its relationship with the population and its environs. In his latest publication entitled “Soldiers of the Short Grass” this historian-soldier puts his finger on the enigma that is the Camp – a place which deserves a description stronger than the transience implied by the word “Camp” and yet which cannot be defined by the conventional urban terminologies of “town” or “village”.
In many ways this problem of characterisation of the Curragh Camp has exacerbated in recent decades. Since the first permanent buildings in the mid-19th century the Curragh not alone possessed the amenities of a fully functional town but primed by the needs of an imperial military machine in many ways exceeded the facilities available to the dwellers of many Irish towns. Long before most towns had piped water the Camp had its own pumped water supply drawn deep from the sand-filtered Curragh aquifer. A hospital service which catered for families as well as soldiers, recreation rooms, churches, sports facilities, a small but thriving selection of shops and, for a time, two cinemas prevailed well into the second half of the twentieth century. In perceptive words – a consistent feature of this exceptionally well-rounded history of the Curragh – the author charts the fall of the Curragh community from its apogee in the years of the “Emergency” (1939-45): ” As time went by, however, there was a gradual erosion of community; married quarters began to be closed and more of those working in the camp moved to its outskirts. At the time of writing less than a handful of businesses now remain.”
Perhaps the “Last Post” was sounded for the Dept. of Defence’s support for a distinctive Curragh community with the winding down of the Curragh Military Families Hospital, colloquially known as the “the Families” where many Curragh children were born. The author recalls the warm appreciation felt by military households towards the staff of “the Families” and particularly in its maternity role. He reflects on the care and attention lavished on each mother be it her first pregnancy or not: ” In fact the more children each expectant mother had the more it was felt that she was in greater need of pampering and every effort was made to give her a holiday ‘within the Camp.” It is fitting then that some of those same children born in the families’ hospital are behind a project led by the Curragh History Society to create a permanent memorial to the doctors, staff, and nurses of the hospital – the last vestige of which ceased with the closing of the “Families Clinic” in 2014
The book “Soldiers of the Short Grass” is published by the enterprising Merrion Press which has relocated its publishing house from Chapel Lane, Sallins, to George’s Street, Newbridge, appropriately nearer the subject of its most recent publication. It is an important publication being the first history of the Camp published since the monumental history of the British establishment and occupation from 1855 to 1922 written by Lt. Col. Costello, and titled “A most delightful station.” This column has a special interest in that Con Costello contributed a weekly column to the Leinster Leader under the “Looking Back” title for a remarkable 25 years and was foremost among the county and military historians of his era. The first half of Dan Harvey’s book covers similar ground but with new insights and a fresh approach. The second half is the first published survey of the history of the Camp under an Irish government and as such is an original and thought-provoking read for anyone who knows the Curragh even if it is just to see its distinctive twin towers from a distance.
As a postscript it seems appropriate to put on record an unusual interaction between the Curragh military and Kildare County Council – an interaction not recorded in print before now. This was the improvement to motorway standard of the main road across the Curragh in the section from Ballymany to Colgan’s cut on the Kildare town side. This project was in place (1986) many years before the more publically controversial Kildare by-pass motorway (2003) which made headlines over the fate of an unfortunate species of snail whose habitat was said to be threatened by the construction over the sensitive Curragh aquifer.
Returning to the planning for the new cross-Curragh road in the early 1980s a triumvirate of senior officers from the Curragh command visited the Kildare County Engineer to press for design features to be included in the new road of remarkable military significance. The first was that gates would be provided in the sheep-proof fences – novel for the Curragh – lining the new carriageways. The proposal was that the keys would be held by the camp duty officer so that, in an emergency, army vehicles would drive across the plain from the camp and directly on to the embankment of the new carriageway. The second was that the road would be finished so that Air Corps planes could use it as a runway. This would emulate practice in such defensively self-sufficient countries as Switzerland where military jets practice from designated sections of public road. The third was that the bridges being planned across the road would be able to bear the weight of tanks and armoured vehicles.
In the event only the latter was put into the design. In an Irish solution to an Irish problem it was felt that gates would be superfluous as in an emergency nobody would wait to find the keys and the military would drive straight through the fencing. And the median safety fencing installed on the motorway left little margin for aircraft use – a requirement now redundant with the acquisition by the Air Corps of troop-carrying helicopters.However, a potentially graver problem had to be resolved at a higher level. There was concern that in the event of a catastrophic incident at the magazine at the Kildare end of the camp which stores the army’s explosives and ammunition stocks that motorists on the road less than a kilometre away would be obliterated by exploding projectiles. The Dept. of Local Government engineers suggested that an earthen bank might be built on the camp side of the road to absorb the force of a conflagration. The Ordnance Corps officers at the Curragh responded that in the event of a major explosion -a highly unlikely event given the army’s meticulous safety drills – the bank itself could become the source of secondary projectiles spewing tons of earth on to the road. In the event the issue went to Cabinet and in a memo initialled by the then Taoiseach, Garrett Fitzgerald, T.D., it was decided that the risk was sufficiently minimal to justify proceeding with the road without any special protection. It is clear from the foregoing and from the wealth of commentary in Dan Harvey’s book that the Curragh has many stories to tell. Leinster Leader 28 June 2016, Looking Back Series no: 492.