The Irish army wife: a brief case study

Paul Huddie examines the wives, sweethearts and mothers of the children of soldiers garrisoned in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century

by Dr Paul Huddie


Within popular history Ireland is perceived to have been (outside of India) the principal garrison in the British Empire. During the union period this is certainly evident from the island’s average yearly military population of 20,000 soldiers, from all four nations of the United Kingdom (and further afield).

Yet little thought is given to the women who were associated with those men, namely their wives, sweethearts and the mothers of their children. Many of whom travelled from various parts of the British Isles and wider empire to be near to them. This is in spite of the fact that (as Myna Trustram has argued) the majority of such women came from Ireland (and also Scotland) in the first half of the nineteenth century. Even as the proportion of Irishmen in the British forces declined throughout the union period a large population of army (and indeed navy) wives remained in Ireland, as well as scattered across the empire.

In spite of their numbers, which are hard to pin down, but can be estimated in proportion to the garrison’s size, very little consideration is ever given to those women. No dedicated study has yet been carried out about them in Ireland and the references to them in the various studies of poverty and charity remain scant. Who were those women, where did they live, how many of them were there and what were their lives like? Serious and dedicated research is required in order to answer these questions, but in the interim tentative answers can be provided through case studies.

During the Crimean War, 1854-6, and more so in its wake, answers to those aforementioned questions became more apparent. This was largely due to the development of a nationwide (United Kingdom) popular wartime philanthropy and charity craze. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people flocked to give what they could, both money and goods, to the fighting man and his family. As a result scores of charities were established; the most prominent was the Patriotic Fund. It was established by the decree of Queen Victoria in October 1854.

Although the returns of that charity in no way provide a complete account of the numbers of army wives and children in Ireland at the time (which might be estimated at up to 8,000 in Ireland alone), they do show the disposition and concentrations of Ireland’s army (and navy) widows and orphans in general.


Widows   Widows
Army Navy Total   Army Navy Total
Armagh 15 15 Fermoy 11 1 12
Athlone 18 18 Galway 20 2 22
Ballymena 21 1 22 Kilkenny 16 16
Belfast 53 53 Limerick 42 42
Birr 24 24 Londonderry 4 1 5
Carlow 10 10 Longford 11 11
Castlebar 7 7 Monaghan 4 4
Cavan 8 8 Newry 21 21
Clonmel 21 1 22 Omagh 5 5
Cork 46 23 69 Roscommon 13 13
Drogheda 9 1 10 Sligo 4 18
Dublin 119 1 120 Tralee 17 1 18
Ennis 22 22 Tullamore 8 8
Enniskillen 11 11 Waterford 11 4 15
        Total 371 36 607

Table 1 Numbers of widows relieved in Ireland by the Patriotic Fund

The areas with the largest concentrations of soldiers had the largest concentrations of army wives – naturally. Outside of the large cities and towns of Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick (with their numerous barracks) were the barrack towns of Birr, Ballymena, Ennis and Newry. Although Cork provided over half of naval recruits in the period it was Dublin that was apparently home to most of the naval wives, or perhaps just the widows. This may be attributed to the size and prominent status of its port, but also the general attribute of ‘metropolises’ to act as magnets for the destitute and those seeking employment or emigration.


  Widows   Orphans
Dublin 119 Dublin 126
Belfast 53 Belfast 59
Cork 46 Cork 41
Limerick 42 Limerick 40
Birr 24 Ballymena 29
Ennis 22 Ennis 25
Newry 21 Newry 21
Clonmel 21 Birr 28
Ballymena 21 Galway 29
Galway 20 Clonmel 24

Table 2 Top ten locations of army widows and orphans 1855-8 in receipt of Patriotic Fund assistance after Crimean War

The Patriotic Fund returns of 1858 clearly illustrate the presence of such women in Ireland during the union period (as in Britain). They also give a tantalising glimpse at what was, given the large and constant garrison, a prominent and permanent, although constantly shifting, portion of nineteenth-century Ireland’s population and women’s history.

For more see: Paul Huddie, The Crimean War and Irish society (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).