The Crimean War (1854-1855) has often been described as a pointless, minor war in a far off place. Certainly this conflict, primarily involving France, Russia and Britain, was pointless, in as much as all wars are but a minor war it was not. It accounted for the lives of almost three quarters of a million soldiers. It was also important in that it was a war in which more men (four out of five) died from, disease, especially cholera, than perished on the battlefield.
An immense number of Irishmen fought with the British army but as the Dublin Evening Mail of 23rd October 1856 reported, they received little recognition for their efforts; “The soldiers, when they returned, could pass unnoticed through the streets. The Viceroy with a spirit and energy that do (sic) him honour, called attention to the omission and urged that it (congratulations) might be speedily supplied.”
The Lord Mayor, Fergus Farrell, organised a preliminary meeting held on the 19th August 1856, to decide how best to celebrate the return of Irish soldiers. He suggested providing a banquet for the troops and tendered “his own subscription of £50 or more should it be necessary, in aid of the entertainment.” It was resolved at this meeting that “steps should be taken to invite to a national entertainment in the city of Dublin, all the troops now serving in Ireland who are wearers of Crimean medals.”
The problem of space however, was solved by an offer from Mr. Henry Scovell, who suggested using his bonding warehouse, Stack A, at the Custom House Docks. It was suggested to the committee that the premises “would be peculiarly adapted to the purposes of the banquet…..and it appeared to them so suitable that they considered it quite unnecessary to examine any further” Thus, as the Irish Sword-reports, Stack A was “accordingly fitted up by the architect of the Board of Works (J.H. Owen).”
Efforts were made by the committee to ascertain the number of Crimean troops stationed in Ireland. It was judged that the warehouse had the capacity to accommodate 3,000 soldiers and finally the decision was made that this number would consist of the following:
- Dublin Garrison 1,500
- Curragh & Newbridge Garrisons 1,000
- Other Garrisons 500
There was widespread support for the banquet in Dublin society. This was translated into numerous cash subscriptions as well as other gifts. For example, “a Dublin wine merchant, Henry Brennan, gave the wine, a pint of port or sherry for each of the four thousand guests,” (made up of 3,000 soldiers and 1,000 others). The 1,000 ‘other’ guests were accommodated in a gallery overlooking the banquet hall. The Freemans Journal of 16th October 1856 reported that these guests were admitted at the following prices: “Ten shillings will be charged for each gentleman and five shillings for each lady’s ticket and 1,000 tickets will be issued.” The subscribers to the banquet fund had the first option to buy the tickets, and the remainder were sold to the general public.
On the day of the banquet, 22nd October, the newspapers described the reaction of Dublin people to the event, as overwhelming: “The entire length of the quays from Kingsbridge terminus to the Custom House, and the various streets leading towards the scene of the coming banquet were thronged with groups of people, awaiting the first arrival of the military guests.” According to the Irish Sword, “the people showed nothing but friendliness and the troops were cheered along the route.” As they marched towards the docks, the troops still wore what were described as “heavy Crimean beards.” The banquet commenced at 1.l5pm. The following details give us an indication of the amount of food and beverage consumed throughout the day: “There were laid 250 hams, 230 legs of mutton, 250 pieces of beef, 500 meat pies, 100 venison pasties, 100 rice puddings, 250 plum puddings weighing one ton and a half, 200 turkeys and 200 geese, 2,000 rolls, 3,500 lbs of bread, 3 tons of potatoes, 8,500 quart bottles and 3,500 pint bottles ‘of port.” The speeches made during the meal were triumphant and passionate. Lord Hugh Gough, Colonel-in-Chief of the 60th Royal Rifles, stated: “I feel it to be the happiest moment of a long life of military vicissitude to be associated with my countrymen in this public demonstration of a nation’s gratitude for military deeds, well-deserving of a nation’s praise and best feeling.” Isaac Butt M.P., spoke of “the Crimean heroes” and offered “a thousand welcomes with all the cordiality of the lush heart — to those who fought for us in far off lands.” On a more sombre note, Lord Talbot de Malahide proposed a toast to “the memory of the fallen,” and reminded those present that ‘whilst they did honour to the living they should not forget the fallen.”
The proceedings came to an end at 4.15pm “when the troops mustered in the Custom House yard and marched to their
respective railway termini.”