Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, the first Irish Governor of Malta.Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, the first Irish Governor of Malta.

On December 10, 1799, the first 700 Irish soldiers ever to set foot on Malta, disembarked on the island. They tip-toed into the island incognito and without any fuss.

These men and other Irish brethren who were to follow them throughout the 1800s catapulted the hitherto subdued village people to prominence and made them stand tall. They broke the mould of the status quo that had stretched back generations whereby the only people that mattered were the elite and clergy.

Centuries of a relatively static, almost uninterrupted way of life suddenly crumbled. This startling change breached the then natural order of things. It was a very visible and audible social change.

It beggars belief as to how the Irish have not been credited with even as much as a footnote by local historians.

The reason for this disrespectful omission is embedded in the fact that these proud-to-be-Irish-born-and-bred-men were officially camouflaged and christened as British. Since the Irish entered and left Malta in the same ships, talked, marched, looked and wore the same military uniform as the English and had English-sounding surnames, and since they were here ‘fi żmien l-Ingliżi’, all the Irish personnel in the British Army were lumped together as British.

Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, visited Malta in 1895.Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, visited Malta in 1895.

Hopefully this article will help us rethink this widespread perception.

This first contingent of Irish soldiers in the British Army entered Malta through the island’s backdoor – St Paul’s Bay. This was because Grand Harbour was occupied by the French. The Irish had earlier set sail from Cork in Ireland to Messina in Sicily from where, on December 6, they embarked on the Malta mission.

They were ferried aboard HMS Fodrayant-80 and HMS Culloden-74. The former carried the 89th Regiment, which had been was raised in Dublin, Ireland, by Major General William Crosbie on December 3, 1793. During the first years of the 19th century, the regiment proudly displayed the Cross of St Patrick on its colours. The regiment consisted of 474 men and 42 women, almost all Irish. The 30th (Cambridgeshire) regiment was on HMS Culloden-74. It included some 250 men who were jailed in Cork and who, in late 1799, were given the choice of either joining the regiment or face death in Ireland by hanging. They wisely all opted to join the regiment. After the French surrendered, the Irish moved to more fixed and purpose-built barracks in Cottonera.

Among the first British infantry regiments that arrived in Malta to help the Maltese drive Napoleon’s forces out of the island, some two-thirds of the soldiers were Irish. They started the now over 200-year-old relationship between the Irish and Maltese people.

It beggars belief as to how the Irish have not been credited with even as much as a footnote by local historians. The reason for this disrespectful omission is the fact that these proud-to-be-Irish-born-and-bred-men were camouflaged as British

They had barely set foot on Malta’s shores before that most important date in the Irish calendar, March 17, the feast of St Patrick, started being celebrated with great pomp in Malta as from 1801. Thus it came about that the hitherto locally unknown and unheard of St Patrick made his entry in our midst with a bang. His feast day was instantly given almost national day status.

On the first St Patrick’s Day celebration in Malta, all the island’s towers, forts and cavaliers had the Imperial ensign flying, and troops were in formation presented arms in Palace Square, Valletta.

Major-General Henry Pigot, the supreme authority on the island, saw to it that the day was celebrated in style. He gave a dinner to all officers in the garrison and brought the memorable day to an end with an evening ball to which military dignitaries and leading Maltese were invited.

Żabbar St Patrick FC’s premises .Żabbar St Patrick FC’s premises .

While the event was ostensibly held to celebrate the recent Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, the occasion was a fitting tribute to and acknowledgment of the importance of the Irish presence on the island. Henceforth a quiet crescendo of Irish-ness grew and permeated 19th century British Malta.

An Irish serviceman, Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings (1754-1826) was appointed Governor of Malta on March 22, 1824. Born in County Down, he had his youth spent in Dublin. In October 1847, another Irishman from Moyvalley, County Kildare, Richard More O’Ferrall, was also appointed as Governor of Malta.

Irish servicemen serving in the British Army followed the patriotic call and pursued the unwritten pattern that Irish communities in Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Boston and New York had embraced with religious fervour: to keep the Irish Question firmly alive. As a side effect of this unofficial assignment, the Irish introduced a new brand of popular, street entertainment that was unrestrained but at the same time orderly. Above all else, they ditched time-honoured conventions of celebrations, turned their back on the ancien regime of solemnity, soberness and submission and introduced in Malta a secular culture that gave a great boost to ordinary people, who were given a decent niche of their own in the village hierarchy.

The Irish turned the Grand Harbour area into a Little Ireland. National symbols dear to Irish nationalism such as the colour green, the shamrock leaf, Ireland’s protector St Patrick, and the old Latin name for Ireland, Hibernia, became almost local institutions and household words. To this day there are still reminders of the Irish presence in Malta, such as Hastings Gardens in Valletta and Triq l-Irlandiżi in Cospicua.

In the sacristy of Floriana parish church is a painting of Cardinal-Priest and Primate of All Ireland, Michael Logue, a Donegal man who, on his way to Rome, made a detour and paid a short visit to Malta in 1895, presumably to give moral support to the Irish soldiers stationed in Floriana barracks and elsewhere.

Other reminders are Hibernians FC, proudly showcased in Paola’s main square and St Patrick’s FC in the heart of Żabbar.

A new group of surnames made its appearance. Besides the old, established Semitic and Romance surnames, as from 1799 we now have the Irish-Gaelic group. Dotted all around the harbour area, new, Irish-Gaelic surnames surfaced, like Brennan, Connor, Farrell, Kavanagh, Kelly, Mahoney, Moore, Sullivan and Worley. A breath of fresh, northern air was brought about by the newly formed all-lay football clubs, run by ordinary villagers, in a number of localities.

Hibernian FC’s club in Paola Square. Hibernia is the Classical Latin name for Ireland.Hibernian FC’s club in Paola Square. Hibernia is the Classical Latin name for Ireland.

The Irish democratised Maltese culture and gave it a new direction. Military bands like that of the Irish Fusiliers delighted the crowds with the then latest craze – parades, guards of honour, military marches, colours and banners. Palace Square, the square in front of St John’s Co-Cathedral and the Floria­na Parade Ground became cultural spaces.

The Archbishop enjoyed having a guard of honour made up of Irish Catholics and specifically asked for an Irish band on very special occasions inside and outside the cathedral. One such occasion was the requiem Mass held to mark the death of Pope Pius VII. An order from the Brigade Majors Office on September 22, 1823, read: “A guard of honour… from the rank and file of the 18h Royal Irish Regiment…the band and King’s colour of that corps will parade tomorrow morning at St John’s Cathedral at a quarter before nine o’clock… The men of this guard to be selected from the Catholics in the regiment.”

The Irish soldiers often came to the rescue of the Archbishop and the commanding officer and saved them from endless criticism from “Protestant officers and men (who) had not only to attend, but also to present arms (and) drop the King’s colours when the host was elevated”.

This preponderance of Irishmen in the British Army in the 19th century should not be a surprise. The Irish were the backbone of the British Army at the time. At any given period throughout that century, the Irish made up at least a third of British Army personnel. In the 1830s, over 42 per cent of British soldiers were Irish born. By 1860, some two-thirds of the British Army, including English country regiments, was constituted by Irishmen or their descendants.

At the time of Napoleon’s fall, no less than 159,000 Irishmen were serving in the British military; hence Daniel O’Connell’s legitimate cry that Britain “was taking our native army away from us”, and the saying: ‘The British Empire was won by the Irish, administered by the Scots and Welsh, and lost by the English.’

Whole regiments were entirely raised in Ireland, like the Dublin-based 89th Regiment and the 18th Regiment of Foot based in Clonmel, Tipperary. With the lifting of the Penal Laws in 1799 that had excluded Catholics from enlisting in the British military, the floodgates were swung open for the Irish to join the British Army. Ireland was the supply depot of soldiers ready to join that army. The country was in a state of utter devastation and poverty. The failure of the potato crop in 1845 decimated the Irish population and made the 19th century the greatest period of death and misery. The only way out of this misery was emigration or enlistment in the British Army. This Hobson’s choice applied to the farm labourer and the Irish aristocrat alike.

The culture of primogeniture, where unless one was firstborn, one lost the right of inheriting the family estate, the romantic and noble ideal of noblesse oblige where people of a high social rank felt it their duty to be generous to those in the lower orders, plus the ingrained culture that gentlemen did not go into manufacturing, left the aristocracy with little choice: the Church or the army. That explains the top-heavy list of Irish field marshals in the British Army, such as the Duke of Wellington, born and bred in Merrion Street, Dublin, and Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, from Ballylongford, near Listowel in County Kerry.

So when we talk of the British Army we have to be a bit wary. It would be fairer and more realistic were we to refer to it as the Anglo-Irish Army.

A breath of fresh, northern air was brought about by the newly formed all-lay football clubs, run by ordinary villagers, in a number of localities. The Irish democratised Maltese culture and gave it a new direction

It followed that a large part of the manpower in the British Army stationed in Malta was, in fact, Irish. The Irish were headquartered at Verdala Barracks. Their quarters stretched from Verdala and St Clement barracks to nearby Żabbar Gate, onto where today there lies St Edward’s College, Fort San Salvatore and Fort Ricasoli. Later in the century we find them also at San Francisco di Paola Barracks in Għajn Dwieli, Fort St Elmo in Valletta, Floriana Barracks, Marsamxett, Fort Manoel, Mtarfa and as far as Gozo.

The Irish were reknown for taking their wives and many children with them on their overseas tours. Many of these Irish families accompanying Irish soldiers were accommodated at St Clement and Camerata Baracks, Valletta.

The Irish found benign terrain in Malta. They had traits of endearment that led to them being well received. For one thing, they were Catholic; they were not destitute; they had a regular, decently-paid job, probably better than that of most locals; they did not come as immigrants; they did not have to compete with the locals for jobs. Moreover, because many of them were accompanied by their wives and children, they came to be regarded as family people.

Dublin’s memorial to the Potato Famine victims – a picture of devastation and misery.Dublin’s memorial to the Potato Famine victims – a picture of devastation and misery.

Irishmen everywhere had a political agenda to follow. From the 1840s onwards, Daniel O’Connell’s call for the repeal of the Act of Union and the return of Irish representation and Parliament in Ireland became religiously observed as the first Commandment. New York Archbishop John Hughes, the soul behind St Patrick’s Cathedral, Limerick priest Canon Edward Joseph Hannon (1836-1891) and Andrew Kerins (1840-1915), better known by his religious name of Marist Brother Walfrid, a Sligo born man, the brains behind Hibernian and Celtic football clubs respectively, and Cardinal Logue, were all deeply involved ‘in the Irish Question’, namely Irish independence from British rule.

So was Malta’s Governor More O’Ferrall. He was a personal friend of Cardinal Wiseman and a supporter of O’Connell. Four years into his governorship of Malta he resigned from the position because he would not serve under the British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who had favoured the passing of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act of 1851 in opposition to the Papal Bill of 1850 to restore a Catholic hierarchy in England.

The rank and file of Irish soldiers and their families in Malta were imbued with this Irish spirit of rebellion against Ireland being ruled from Westminster. They too played a great role in keeping the ‘Irish question’ highly visible. They embarked on a quiet programme of giving Irish-ness a very high profile.

They used the same tools and religiously followed the same steps of Irish immigrants everywhere. Their ingredients were: soccer, dear old names for Ireland, St Patrick, the shamrock, the colour green, marches, parades and banners.

Most Maltese today believe that football was born and bred in England. Yet the Irish in Malta made that game their own and paraded it as Irish-ness in Floriana, Paola and Żabbar. Floriana, with a parade ground used by Irish regiments and with a nucleus of Irish families, had been ‘home’ to the Irish for over 90 years when in 1894 Floriana Football Club was founded. It goes without saying that green featured prominently in the club’s gear. This came hot on the heels after the founding in Scotland of Hibernian FC in 1875 and Celtic FC in 1887.

Another locality in the Grand Harbour area that Irish soldiers were familiar with – having often made use of San Francesco di Paola Barracks – was Paola. In 1922, Hibernians FC was formed. The name says it all and carries a great Irish imprint.

Żabbar, only a stone’s throw from Verdala, had also a small but strong Irish community. As with Celtic and Dundee, the town’s football team experimented with the names Żabbar Shamrocks and Żabbar Irish before finally settling for Żabbar St Patrick. Up to the end of World War II, Il-Misraħ, which was then the hub of the town, still hosted the team’s headquarters, which was known as Tal-Irish.

Ireland’s patron saint has made his way lock, stock and barrel into this town. The shamrock leaf is boldly displayed on jerseys of the club’s players, on the club’s signage at its premises and on the flag that flies on the club’s roof every March 17, together with bright green stripes.

Up to a few years ago, a painting that must have been among the very first images of the saint in the Cottonera area used to be proudly displayed next to the trophies won by the Żabbar club – one cannot get more Irish than that.

The names and colours of these teams, stretching in a line from Floriana to Żabbar, declare their origin. I feel for the steadfast supporters of these harbour area teams who are often at their wits end and are prepared to catch at straws to explain the Irish roots of their teams. Some may find it uneasy to reconcile their Irish association at a time when we were ‘taħt l-Ingliżi’.

They need not be. It is perfectly plausible that Floriana are known as The Greens because it so happened that an Irish team played against them a number of times in one year; and that the Paola club got its name because they happened to play against a team from HMS Hibernia that was in Malta at the time. But the real explanation is to be found right on their doorsteps – the Irish soldiers and their families lived there. Let us not miss the wood for the trees.

To be concluded

Grazio Ellul graduated in History from the University of London and has conducted research at the State Archives of Palermo and Naples. He taught History at the Upper Secondary, Naxxar, and served as head of school for a number of years. He has lived in Dublin since 2005 and is a freelance writer.

The author acknowledges the use of the website A History of the British Army in Malta – Talk Talk, in compiling this article.

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