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In 1830, when Ireland comprised about one third of the population of the United Kingdom, over forty per cent of the British army consisted of Irish recruits. This over-representation continued throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.[1] The Irish were essential to the army’s strength yet there has been little study of their role and historians of the Irish in Britain have almost totally ignored them.[2] In Stafford’s case, soldiers and old soldiers were a significant element amongst the Irish who came to the town.

The British army depended on Irish recruits because military wages were low. By 1850 army pay was equivalent to only the lowest farm labourer’s wages in Britain. From then on the increasing gap between British civilian and military wages caused a chronic shortage of British recruits whereas in Ireland army pay could still compete with the miserable local incomes. The army also offered security and the prospect of adventure and camaraderie, and joining up remained a preferable, even attractive, option for many.[3] This was still the case amongst the labouring Irish in Britain and that trait continued into the second-generation born in Britain.[4]

The majority of Irish recruits, unskilled and often ill-educated, were in the infantry. If they stuck it out, soldiers serving at least seven years received a gratuity and those who lasted twenty-one years got a pension. Irish soldiers were almost certain to be drafted to overseas and they were therefore both the subjects and the agents of British imperialism. Ordinary soldiers served in garrisons throughout the Empire and helped fight Britain’s imperial wars.

After discharge soldiers faced all the challenges and many of the traumas which became more familiar in the late twentieth century. Service often left men disabled, debilitated, troubled and with few skills. Some suffered from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Poverty, drink and petty violence were hazards that lay in wait for those out of luck and unable to cope.

On 25 January 1908 the Staffordshire Advertiser reported the ‘sad death of a military veteran’. He was John Ryan and his life in Stafford demonstrates that army service was no simple passport to security and advancement. It could presage poverty and a squalid death. Ryan was born in Co. Galway around 1836. His father probably died in the Famine, but his mother Ann turned up in Stafford in the early 1850s and in 1855 married John Blundon, a hawker, also from Co. Galway. John Ryan must have joined the army before his mother left Ireland, and although his military record has not been traced, we know he was serving in India at the time of the ‘Mutiny’ in 1857.[5]

British soldiers storming Delhi during the Indian Mutiny (Hutton Archive/Getty Images)

British soldiers storming Delhi during the Indian Mutiny (Hutton Archive/Getty Images)

John had a brother, Michael, who in 1861 was living with his mother and stepfather in Plant’s Square, Stafford. Michael became a shoemaker and in 1864 he married Rose Ward, the Stafford-born daughter of Irish immigrants.[6] The couple subsequently lived in London where Rose worked as a shoe machinist.

John Ryan left the army some time in the 1870s. He had served his full twenty-one years and received a pension, but he had also been wounded and that made him ‘feeble on his legs’ in later life. Military service had left him unfitted to compete in the labour market and he may have had mental traumas in addition to his physical injury that left him unstable and prone to violence. After discharge he had nowhere to go, so he went back to his mother in Stafford and thereafter lived with the Blundons in their various miserable dwellings. It was a wretched household. John Blundon was a violent drunkard who assaulted his cowed wife although ‘she declined to bring charges against him’.[7] In 1878 John Ryan assaulted his stepfather after the latter had again attacked his mother and hit Ryan ‘with a formidable stick’[8]. He got by doing labouring jobs and also by selling on the streets with his stepfather. His army pension was key to his survival but he must, nevertheless, have been semi-destitute.

Sometime in the 1890s old John and Ann Blundon deserted Stafford and disappeared. Perhaps they went back to Ireland. John Ryan was left to survive as best he could. Rather fortunately for him his brother Michael died in London in the same period and his widow Rose was left penniless. By 1901 she had returned to Stafford and moved in with her brother-in-law. The couple lived together as man and wife in yet another rotten house, No. 9 Snow’s Yard. Mary had a job as a needle fitter in a shoe factory but their income must have been very poor. By 1907 they were in No. 1 Plant’s Square. They had sunk to the bottom of the housing market and, ironically, it was next door to where the Ann Ryan and John Blundon had started their married lives over forty years previously.

John Ryan died at the beginning of January 1908. His inquest revealed shocking conditions. His ‘widow’ Rose reported that he was an Army Pensioner who had served through the Indian Mutiny but also that he had had bronchitis for a number of years as well as his enfeebling leg wound. He had fallen down and fractured his arm but refused to go into the Workhouse Infirmary. He died of ‘congestive pneumonia’ at home, a house where the ‘surroundings were very filthy and the stench was overpowering’ according to the doctor who attended him. The inquest jury expressed ‘regret that a man who had served his country as the deceased had done should have been allowed to live in such squalid surroundings.’[9] Just two years later Rose Ryan died a pauper in the Workhouse.[10]

John Ryan had grown up in the poverty of Galway during the Famine and had then escaped into the army, but for him army service left a legacy of problems. His remaining life was a miserable struggle to survive in an alien environment, although his common law relationship with widowed Rose at least meant John achieved some relational stability in his final years. Rose’s mention of John’s service in the Mutiny and his army pension suggests that, as with many old soldiers, his service years were the biggest thing that ever happened in his life. Nevertheless, the circumstances of his death show how, for one Irishman, years of poverty and disruption ended in squalor and degradation in a small town in the Midlands. John Ryan’s life is a grim reminder of how service in the military could cripple some migrants’ prospects for the rest of their lives.

  • M. Speirs, ‘Army organisation in the nineteenth century’ in T. Bartlett and K. Jeffery (eds.), A Military History of Ireland, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 335-6 and Table 15.1.
  • F.W. Beckett, ‘War, identity and memory in Ireland’, Irish Economic and Social History, Volume 36 (2009), p. 78.
  • Speirs, ‘Army organisation’, pp. 39-40; P. Karsten, ‘Irish soldiers in the British army, 1792-1922: suborned or subordinate?’, Journal of Social History, Volume 17, No. 1, (Autumn 1983), pp. 38-41; D.M. Rowe, ‘Binding Prometheus: how the nineteenth century expansion of trade impeded Britain’s ability to raise an army’, International Studies Quarterly, Volume 46, No. 4 (December 2002), pp. 562-3.
  • Fitzpatrick, ‘A curious middle place: the Irish in Britain, 1871-1921’ in R. Swift and S. Gilley (eds.), The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939, (London, Pinter Publishers, 1989), p. 23.
  • Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 25 January 1908 – report of inquest into John Ryan’s death. The name John or J. Ryan was so common amongst army recruits that it is impossible to make a definitive identification of his service record.
  • Stafford Registration District, Marriages, October-December 1864, 6b/29, Michael Ryan and Rose Ward.
  • SA, 2 June 1877.
  • SA, 17 August 1878.
  • SA, 25 January 1908.
  • Stafford Borough Council Burial Record 9/5901, 23 May 1910, Rose Ryan.