The South African Irish


On September 11th 1876, a meeting of men interested in the formation of an Irish Corps was held at Grahamstown Magistrates Court. The meeting was open to all, and not just Irishmen. Some of the proposed names for the corps were. First City Irish, City of Grahamstown Irish Volunteer Rifles and Grahamstown Royal Irish. But the title picked was the Grahamstown Irish Volunteer Rifle Corps. Dress was briefly discussed, and a green uniform with red facings was suggested. Forty-three names had already been given as willing to join the corps, and a further five at the meeting. The name might suggest otherwise. But the Irish Corps was not intended to be a national corps, and enrolment was open to all. However the Governor objected to the corps calling itself the “Irish” Volunteer Corps. And might accept them if they choose a name not calculated to give them a national character. On October 30th a further meeting was held. And it was decided that the Irish Corps would rename themselves, the Grahamstown Volunteer Rifles. Now with a strength of almost one hundred men, two thirds of which were Irish, the corps lost its Irish title.

A few years later in January 1878, Sir Thomas Upington formed an Irish Corps in Cape Town. The unit was raised for service in the 9th frontier war. Which was being fought in the Eastern Cape, against the Xhosa people. A meeting held on January 5th, called on “Irishmen desirous of forming a national corps”. Twenty-five men enlisted that night in Upington’s Volunteers. On January 24th the Irish Brigade of some thirty men, embarked onboard the Florence for the East Cape. The Cape Times reported “most were dressed in dark corduroy suits and light sun helmets”. The frontier war ended in July 1878. Upington was later to become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

The Port Elizabeth based Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guard. Formed an Irish company after a meeting held on March 8th 1878. At the meeting it was resolved to form a company under the title No. 5 or Irish Company. Ninety men gave their names as willing to join. On April 10th 1878, the government accepted the services of No. 5 Irish Company. And limited it to one hundred men. Mr. A. Wilmot was elected Captain. 

In late 1939 “C” (Irish) Company of PAG was formed. Men of this unit were originally recruited in the Cape, for a proposed 2nd South African Irish Regiment, which never got off the ground. (The 1st South African Irish Regiment had been formed in November 1939, with its HQ in Johannesburg). On February 9th 1943, the regiment was informed it would convert from infantry to an armoured regiment. The companies were re-organized into squadrons, and became part of the 11th South African Armoured Brigade, of 6th South African Armoured Division.  And served thought the war.

Upington’s Volunteers were not the only Irish unit formed in Cape Town. On April 10th 1885, the Irishmen of the city were requested to attend a meeting at the Bristol Hotel. With the purpose of “considering the advisability of forming an Irish Volunteer Regiment”. Only Irishmen or men of Irish descent would be allowed to join. The name was originally to be the South African Royal Irish Volunteer Rifles. But the distinction Royal was denied by Secretary of State. And so on April 30th 1885, the government accepted the service of the Cape Town Irish Volunteer Rifles, commanded by Captain T. J. O’Reilly. Under condition that it keep up to strength. The 1st Administration Regiment was formed on July 15th 1885, and was commanded by Lt. Col. Hon. Thomas Upington. The Cape Town Irish became 3rd Corps, of the newly formed regiment. In 1886 they had a strength of seven officers, and one hundred and fifty men in three companies. On January 30th 1890 they were re-designated, 2nd Corps 1st Administration Regiment. In March 1891 when the Cape Town Irish were being disbanded, a number of men were taken off the strength from March 20th. And transferred to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles, as “H” Company from March 23rd, under command of Captain Mansfield.                                                                                                                                                            

The Natal United Irish Association, proposed an Irish Corps at a meeting held in Durban on September 22nd 1899. The corps was not formed, “owing to the number of Irishmen already engaged in various quarters, it was felt that there would not be sufficient left to form a distinct corps”.

A unit called Driscoll’s Scouts was formed in March 1900, to take part in the Boer War. Although not formed as an Irish regiment, the Scouts are included here as they are often seen in lists of South African Irish units. And there is an Irish connection through Captain D. P. Driscoll, who was of Irish descent and was very proud of his Irish heritage. Also one of the cap badges worn by the unit was distinctly Irish in appearance. Driscoll formed his scouts in the Eastern Cape, from members of the Frontier Mounted Rifles. Originally sixty strong they grew to a strength of almost five hundred. Recruiting adverts were still appearing in the Cape Times the day the war ended. They saw action against the Boers in the Orange Free State, crossing the frontier on St. Patrick’s Day 1900. And also in the East Cape, as part of the Colonial Division. They were disbanded in July 1902.

A meeting of leading Irishmen took place in the board room of the Germiston Municipal Health Board. On Monday evening February 16th 1903. This was to discuss the formation of a volunteer Irish regiment. The regiment was not only to recruit in Germiston and district, but the whole Rand. However it would be another eleven years before an Irish regiment was formed on the Rand. When the South African Irish Regiment was formed in 1914.

An Irish company was established in 1915 as part of the 5th South African Infantry Regiment. Which was being formed for service in German East Africa. And in November-December became the first regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade. The Irish Club of Johannesburg took a keen interest in the formation of the regiment, and helped form “D” Company which was composed entirely of Irishmen. A number of these were from the South African Irish Regiment. Which had been demobilized in July, after the campaign in German South West Africa came to an end.      The cap badge worn was the general issue. Springbok's head in circlet, inscribed with the bi lingual motto "Union is Strength". A diamond flash halved green and white. Was worn on either side of the helmet.