Thursday, August 24, 2000

Thomas McGrath - Athy Soldier

Thomas McGrath born in the Parish of St. John’s, Athy was a 19 old labourer when he enlisted in the 43rd Regiment of Light Infantry in Dublin on the 21st January 1833. The Regiment first raised in 1741 and previously known as the Monmouthshire Light Infantry was based in Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin during 1832 and 1833. The army surgeon who examined McGrath for the purposes of the customary Medical Examination certified that he found

“no rupture or mark of an old wound or ulcer adhering to the bone. He is free from varicose veins of the leg and has the full power and motion of the joints and limbs. He is well formed and has no Scrofulus Affection of the Glands, Scald Head or other inveterate Cutaneous Eruptions; and he is from any trace of Corporal Punishment. His respiration is easy, and his Lungs appear to be sound. He has the perfect use of his Eyes and Ears. His general appearance is Healthy, and he possesses strength sufficient to enable him to undergo the fatigue to which Soldiers are liable. I consider him fit for his Majesty’s Service”.

The Surgeon further recorded McGrath as a five foot nine inch man of fresh complexion with blue eyes and light brown hair with no distinctive marks.

The Articles of War were then read to the young Athy man. Article one enjoined any member of the forces “who being present at any mutiny or sedition shall use his utmost endeavour to supress the same”. The second Article of War read to McGrath by a Justice of the Peace declared “who shall dessert from our service (whether or not he shall re-enlist therein) shall suffer the death or such other punishment as by a General Court Marshal shall be awarded”. No doubt suitably awed by the seriousness of the occasion, McGrath then took the Oath of Allegiance and Fidelity finally receiving the Kings legendary “shilling” which by then amounted to a bounty of three pounds.

Now a fully fledged soldier of the 43rd Regiment, Thomas McGrath was next kitted out and began an army career which was not to end for 46 years. The regiment went to New Brunswick in 1835 and it was one of the Regiments dispatched from New Brunswick to Quebec on horse sleighs in the depth of the winter of 1838/39 on the occasion of the insurrection of Lower Canada. We know from McGrath’s discharge papers that he spent seven years and ten months in North America with his regiment and in all probability took part in that over land trip to Quebec.

McGrath remained in the 43rd Regiment until January 1854 and he was promoted to Corporal after four years and twenty six days service. Another four years and nineteen days as a Corporal saw his promotion to the rank of Sergeant at which he remained for the next thirteen years or so. His army career was not without its ups and downs as evidenced by the entry in his service record which shows that on the 13th November 1837, Corporal McGrath, was arrested tried and sentenced to be reduced to the rank of Private. Further promotion did not come his way until the 1st July 1839 when he regained his former rank of Corporal and two years later his promotion to Sergeant was recorded. He was appointed Colour Sergeant on the 17th February 1847.

McGrath’s discharge papers give an overall conduct rating of “very good” but an addendum relates that he was “once tried by a Court Marshal for being drunk at Tattoo when Orderly Sergeant for the Company”. No further details are given and I wonder whether this was a separate incident to the earlier mentioned one which resulted in him being reduced in the ranks.

The Athy man’s only overseas duty appears to have been spent in North America for even though the 43rd Regiment went to the Cape (South Africa) in 1851 and served in the Kaffir War of 1851-53, no mention of this is made in his discharge papers. McGrath was discharged from the 43rd Regiment in August 1853 on the grounds of “being unfit for further service due to chronic arthritis”. He was then aged just over 39 years of age and received a pension of 2 shillings a day.

The discharge papers show Chatham as the place where the Regimental Board held its proceedings to verify McGrath’s army services although by that stage he already moved closer to Ireland and took up residence in Chester. Chatham is the home of the Royal Engineers and is one of the largest Military bases in England. The Walled Town of Chester stands on the edge of the English border with Wales and in the path of anyone who like McGrath may well have set out on the journey from Chatham to Holyhead with the intention of returning to Ireland. This of course is only supposition, but for whatever reason McGrath found himself in Chester, he made the decision of remaining on the English mainland and retaining his links with the English army. In January 1854, he joined the 1st Cheshire Militia, a part time force which like all other militia corps was staffed by local men usually with the assistance of one or two full time professional soldiers. Within six months McGrath moved from Chester to Welshpool in Central Wales where he enlisted in the Royal Montgomery militia. He was to remain a member of that part time force until his final discharge in January 1879 after a period of 44 years military service. On his final discharge, he was described as a married man with three children and aged approximately sixty five years.

McGrath was but one of the many local men who from the 18th Century onwards enlisted to serve abroad in the English army. Included amongst them was Patrick Dowling of Athy who prior to his enlistment on the 14th December 1849 gave his occupation as “servant”. He joined the 17th Lancers, a Cavalry Regiment and fought in the Crimean War receiving recognition for his involvement in the battles of Alma, Balaklava and Sebastapol. He was killed in the charge of the Light Brigade on the 25th October 1854 and was posthumously awarded a Crimean medal. Interestingly enough, his Crimean medal will be auctioned in Dublin this weekend.

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