World War 1 Training Trenches at Birr Barracks, Crinkill, County Offaly.

The first excavation of its kind in the Republic of Ireland, assessing WW1 era training trenches, took place in August 2018 at Crinkill, Birr, Offaly. The partnership dig and was led by Dr. Denis Shine of Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) and local historian Stephen Callaghan, as well as volunteers from a range of historical and military societies, universities and the local area.

Project Background

Stephen Callaghan has had long-standing research interests in the Birr Barracks and its associated cemetery, having also recently commenced a postgraduate programme of study on its history. A fortuitous meeting with Denis Shine nearly a year ago saw this research take on a new direction. As stated by Dr. Shine ‘the IAFS has conducted community focused programmes of research around the country for several years, including more recently in Birr and the Irish Midlands. Stephen heard about this work and asked if we would like to arrange geophysical surveys of the training trenches. We were delighted to be able to come on board and help, especially as I have lived in Birr since 2007. We were lucky enough that Ashely Green, a geophysicist from University of Bournemouth, agreed to spend her Christmas holidays surveying the trenches last December. Once we had a better handle on their location we agreed to move things forward and arrange a community excavation in cooperation with Offaly County Council; the next key step was a permit for an excavation – a legal requirement for all archaeological digs – so I applied to the National Monuments Section and everything else sort of moved from there’.

 

Birr Barracks History

The barracks at Crinkill has had a long and colourful history, been built between 1809 – 1812. Initially it could house 1100 men but as time moved on and sanitation regulations were introduced, more space was allotted to each man decreasing the number of men the barracks could accommodate to around 600 at the end of the nineteen century. The barracks developed over time with the addition of a station hospital, canteen, garrison church and cemetery, gas works, sewage works, married quarters and a prison with cells.

The garrison acted as various regimental depots, perhaps the most well known being for the Leinster Regiment from 1881 until February 1922.

During the Great War there was a surge in recruitment, with some 6000 men enlisting in the barracks. It was these new men which likely resulted in the construct of the training trenches in the barracks’ training grounds, the Fourteen Acres. These trenches would help train and prepare men for their time in France and Belgium.

The barracks was handed over to the IRA in February 1922, but with the split in the army due to the Anglo-Irish agreement and the outbreak of Civil War the barracks was set alight on 14 July 1922. The burnt out ruins were subsequently demolished overtime and the training trenches were ultimately backfilled.

The Excavation

The excavation was conducted over only five days, but was a tremendous success, with more than 15 volunteers excavating every day, and many many more visiting and contributing in other ways. As stated by Dr. Shine ‘the excavation has helped clarify the form and morphology of the training trenches, and how this may have varied over the site. We may have only assessed a small portion of the trenches, but we have a much better idea as to how they were constructed, what size they were and how realistic they were intended to be’.

Stephen Callaghan adding ‘through excavation we were able to answer a number of research questions on the trenches in Birr, and it has helped us better understand the training methods that were put in place for new recruits or soldiers stationed in the barracks ’. The excavation showed that trenches had the classic zig-zag shape, which is perhaps iconic when thinking of the Great War. While our initial test trenches shows the training trenches were shallow they did get much deeper the further north they went, almost to 4 feet in depth. Small finds included shell casings from service rifles likely dropped around the 1870s, an eyelet from a bell tent like those used for annual militia camps and a silver 1918 3 pence coin, which conceivably was dropped by a soldier while practicing trench warfare’.

 

Community

The project was the first community excavation to occur in County Offaly and was deliberately arranged to coincide with the 50th Birr Vintage Week – a major local festival. As stated by Dr. Shine ‘the dig has been run entirely by a diverse group of volunteers including enthusiasts, locals, military historians, surveyors and archaeologists who have come together with a common aim of investigating the training trenches. The dig shows what can be achieved with a partnership approach between professional archaeologists, local government, historians, and the local community. It is refreshing that so many people were willing to give of their time so freely and generously – including specialists like Brendan Arrigan, Richard Reid and Ashely Green, out surveyor and geophysicist. Many thanks are due to each and every one of them’.

Future Plans

The excavation was a stand-alone project, but there remains major scope for excavation at this site. Future excavations will require funding, but for now the next step is analyses and publication of the results from Birr. As stated by Stephen Callaghan ‘this is only the start on a more in-depth study of the barracks itself and the role it played in Birr and the surrounding environs’.