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The Boer War is significant not only because it was the first major war of the twentieth century but also because it galvanised attitudes to politics in Ireland given the fact that Irishmen fighting both for and against Britain in this reflected Ireland’s confused relationship to the Empire at the time.

When the Boer War broke out on the 11th October 1899[1] it did not take long for an Irish Brigade to be formed to fight for the Boers. The formation of the Irish Transvaal Brigade helped boost Irish Nationalist morale at home but it was not out of respect of the Boers that the Irish fought against Britain but rather because they hated the British as is shown by one member at least of MacBride’s brigade[2].

     At the beginning of September 1899 John MacBride was approached by three Rand Irishmen about forming an Irish fighting unit to help the Boers command of this brigade eventually fell to J. Y.F. Blake an Irish-American[3]. On Friday the 6th of October the Irish Transvaal Brigade was mobilised[4] and advanced to Natal. Blake’s men took part in the Battle of Talana Hill as part of Louis Trichardt’s artillery on the 20th October[5]. They also fought at the Battle of Modderspruit where they were engaged in bringing ammunition up for Trichardt’s artillery[6].

     In January 1900 a second Irish Transvaal Brigade was formed under Arthur Lynch and this reached Natal in February[7]. The two Irish Brigades had a dislike for each other given the fact that Lynch’s Brigade was quite unruly[8]. Members of the Brigades fought at Colenso (15th December 1899), Spion Kop (24th January 1900), Pieter’s Height (27th February 1900), and Bergendah (27th August 1900)[9].

     Irish Casualties of Blake’s Brigade amounted to between 10 and 17 killed and between 50 to 80 wounded and another 15 captured[10]. Arthur Lynch was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason by the British after the war for fighting for the Boer’s[11].

     Irish involvement in the Boer War in aid of the British was more pronounced for instance all five battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fought in South Africa[12]. Very often it was Irishmen fighting Irishmen for instance at Talana Hill where mounted infantry of the Dublin Fusiliers and the 18th Hussars, another Irish unit, were sent to turn the right flank of the Boers[13]. They no doubt were engaged by some of Blake’s men who were fighting here.

     The Dublin Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers and the Inniskilling Fusiliers made up part of the British 5th Brigade under Hart which was sent to take Bridle’s drift near Colenso[14]. The Dublin’s and the Connaught’s in particular suffered heavily losing 219 men[15]. Famously only 5 officers of the Dublin’s and 40% of its men survived to relieve Ladysmith[16].

     Again the Boer War showed the fighting prowess of the Irish fighting both for and against the British. Of those that fought for the British 11 Irishmen were awarded the Victoria Cross[17] for bravery showing that regardless of who they were fighting for and/or against Irishmen asserted their claim to being amongst the bravest and toughest soldiers in the world.



McCraken, D. P., The Irish Pro-Boers 1877-1902. (Cape Town, 1989).

Newark, T. The Fighting Irish. (London, 2012).

The Military History Society of Ireland., Irishmen In War 1800-2000. Essays from The Irish Sword. Vol II. (Dublin, 2006).



[1] McCraken, D. P., The Irish Pro-Boers 1877-1902. p. 44.

[2] McCraken, D. P. pp. 158-166.

[3] McCraken, D. P. p. 141.

[4] McCraken, D. P. p. 142.

[5] McCraken, D. P. p. 145.

[6] McCraken, D. P. p. 146.

[7] McCraken, D. P. p. 143.

[8] McCraken, D. P. p. 149.

[9] McCraken, D. P. pp. 146-147.

[10] McCraken, D. P. p. 148.

[11] McCraken, D. P. p. 166.

[12] Maccauley, J. A. The Dublin Fusiliers. Part I. In The Military History Society of Ireland. Irishmen In War 1800-2000. Essays from The Irish Sword. Vol II. p. 78.

[13] Maccauley, J. A. p. 79.

[14] Maccauley, J. A. pp. 80-81.

[15] Maccauley, J. A. p. 81.

[16] Maccauley, J. A. p. 81.

[17] Newark, T. The Fighting Irish. p. 243.

Guest Writer :

Paul Heffernan

I studied English and History in the National University of Ireland, Galway and got my M.A. in Military History and Strategic Studies in N.U.I. Maynooth. I also gained an M.A. in archival studies from U.C.D. and currently work as an archivist.