Fighting over the scraps of the Union: the cases of two four-nations court battles over ‘Irish’ military charities 1923-9

Fighting over the scraps of the Union: the cases of two four nations court battles over ‘Irish’ military charities 1923-9

This week, Dr Paul Huddie (Maynooth University) discusses how examining court records of charities helps us better understand what happens to transnational organisations after the disillusion of a union.

In 2014 the United Kingdom held its breadth over the potential outcome of the Scottish independence referendum (IndyRef1). Although the result was a slim majority in favour of staying within the Union, the entire campaign was rife with speculations, theories and scaremongering over its potential implications, such as what would Scotland’s currency be, would it keep the monarchy and would there be an Anglo-Scottish border. All of this had implications for England, Wales and especially Northern Ireland, with their historical and cultural links. The sheer complexities of dissolving the Union of four nations (or one central and three devolved states) represented an ironic precursor to those debates that were only partially entertained prior to Brexit, but which have dominated the political, public and academic arenas since 23 June 2016.

While the referendum does provide us with what is now an historical (albeit contemporary and theoretical) example of what might happen if or when the United Kingdom ceased to be united anymore, such an event is not simply fanciful or without precedent, as the Union has already had one secession to date – ‘Southern Ireland’ in 1922.

What is yet to be shown is that dissolution of any union, which in the Scottish case is now 310 years old, in the Irish case was 120 years old (in 1921) and in the British-EU case is (presently) is 45 years old, will always be a complex, drawn-out and potentially violent affair. In the Irish context, and in spite of the predominance of England both within the Union and Englishmen within the British cabinet that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, the dissolution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a four nations affair and can certainly be analysed through that prism.

Working within that context, and that of the looming 2021-3 centenary, it is the purpose of this short post to highlight one such matter that occupied the attentions of the British, Irish and Northern Irish governments between 1923 and 1929, as well as four other non-state actors. This was the question of what to do with the legacies/estates of two (redundant) Irish charities which had been dedicated to the welfare and care of the wives and children of British soldiers (both alive and dead).

The legacies in question were those of the Seaton Association Fund (SAF) and the Royal Hibernian Military School (RHMS). The SAF was a benevolent fund, which was established in 1872 by the Seaton Needlework Association to provide grants to Crimean War soldiers’ widows and the wives of the Dublin garrison whom it employed making army shirts.[i] The RHMS was a school and home for the sons (and daughters until the mid-1800s) of deceased Irish soldiers. It was founded in 1765 originally as a Protestant charity (but later became multidenominational) and from 1770 to 1922 an estimated 9,000 boys and 1,000 girls passed through its doors.[ii]

Both legacies comprised a selection of stocks and bonds, which by 1924 were valued at around £3,500 and £8,000 respectively. The RHMS also has twenty acres of land in Co. Carlow.

The cases, SAF (1923-4) and RHMS (1924-9), were contested by five belligerent parties from across the former British archipelago. These were 1) the British government, represented by the War Office on behalf of the British Army Council, which wanted to vest the capital of the SAF (and no doubt the RHMS too) in another philanthropic organisation, the Royal Patriotic Fund, for the benefit of the widows and orphans of deceased British servicemen; 2) the Irish Free State government, represented by the Attorney General on behalf of the National Army.

While the proposed use for the funds are not documented it can be speculated that they would have been utilised for some similar familial purpose, given the proximity to the Civil War; 3) the Northern Irish government, represented by the Ministry of Finance, whose declared aim (again for the SAF at least) was that ‘the fund should be applied for the benefit of the Widows and Orphans of the British Army serving in Northern Ireland’; 4) the Royal Drummond Institution (est. 1861), which was a school and home for the orphaned daughters of deceased Irish soldiers.

Naturally its interests were its pupils and the continued existence and prosperity of its institution at Bray, Co. Wicklow; 5) and the Commissioners of Charitable Donations and Bequests for Ireland (hereafter the Commissioners). It sought to retain both legacies in Ireland and fulfilling their original purposes (or as close to them as possible) for the benefit of Irish people.[iii]

While all five belligerents made their cases throughout both the proceedings, in 1923-4 and more importantly during the far more complex and drawn out one in 1924-9 (34 months duration), the claims made by the Irish, British and Northern Irish governments were all rejected by the High Court of the Irish Free State. However, it accepted both of the argument of the Commissioners: that the funds ought to remain in Ireland, and of the RDI: that it was the most legitimate claimant being ‘the only institution in Ireland carrying on the work of the defendant Corporation’.[iv]

The Carlow land holdings was split equally between the RDI and another functioning British military charity – the Hibernian Marine School (which was requested to join the case by the court), while the liquid assists were split in a ratio of 1:3 between the St Vincent de Paul Orphanage, Glasnevin (also invited, as it was home to twenty servicemen’s orphans) and the RDI, but placed in the care of the Commissioners. The RDI and SVP would receive quarterly dividends from the same.

The two court cases surrounding the legacies of the SAF and RHMS are not only important due to their contribution to the still developing Irish historiographies of the British ex-serviceman and post- war state-building, but also because they serve to illustrate two things.

This first is how imperial institutions can be (or can envisaged to be) repurposed to serve the requirements of a new state; in this case the Irish Free State – benefit the new National Army, but also others, namely Northern Ireland – benefit British troops within its devolved jurisdiction, and the post-1922 United Kingdom – the benefit of all British Armed Forces widows and orphans.

The second is how complex the dissolution of any union can be and how even the smallest of issues can become extremely complex and time-consuming and occupy the attentions of new states just as easily as the negotiated national issues of political sovereignty, jurisdictional boundaries and oaths, or the day-to-day issues of the primacy of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.[v] So much must be settled, either through recognition or legislation, abolition or ignorance/mild neglect.

All that being said, the importance and interest of the two cases beyond the contemporary relevance and comparison lies in their role as a forum for four nations (or three governments and others) interaction in the post-Union era. While the manuscript foundation of my research of this topic to date remains principally in the Republic of Ireland – the office of the Charities Regulator (formerly the Commissioners), but also in the files of the Ministry of Finance at PRONI, it is most likely that more lies within that latter collection but also the War Office records at Kew. Further research of this and similar post-Union, inter-state engagements would truly serve to develop the four nations historiography.

Lastly, if might be added, that with the prospect of an IndyRef2 still on the cards for the Scottish Nationalist Party, the complexities, both macro and micro, of dissolving a union of nations need to be thoroughly considered before further action is taken. For the realities of such a process have been seen before, in 1923-9, and are now being realised again in the present Brexit negotiations.

[i] ‘Seaton Association Fund Trust Scheme, presented to the High Court of Ireland, Chancery Division, 25 Aug. 1885’, (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, T165). For a full history of this charity see Paul Huddie, ‘A History of a Crimean War Charity: the Seaton Needlework Association and its Fund, 1858 to 2014’, War Correspondent, 32:3 (2015), pp 7-10

[ii] G. H. O’Reilly, History of the Royal Hibernian Military School Dublin (Dublin, 2001), pp 5, 12, 25; H. R. Clarke, A New History of the Royal Hibernian Military School (1765-1924) Phoenix Park, Dublin (Cleveland, OH, 2011), pp 1-3.

[iii] [Secretary of the Charities Commissioners] to Mr Maxwell, 18 Jun. 1923; J.M. Maxwell (Commissioners’ Counsel) to Bodkin, 25 Feb. 1924 (Charities Commissioners Office, Seaton Association Fund, Folio 9643).

[iv] High Court Order, 27 Jul. 1928; Minutes, 12 Dec. 1928 (Charities Commissioners Office, Royal Hibernian Military School, Folio 9507).

[v] Michael Laffin, Judging W.T. Cosgrave: The Foundation of the Irish State (Dublin, 2014), pp 165-90.

Dr Paul Huddie completed his doctorate at Queen’s University Belfast in 2014. He is the author of several peer-reviewed publications including The Crimean War and Irish society (2015) and an executive member of the Irish Association for Professional Historians. His general interest is war and society (Britain and Ireland) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his present specialism is British military welfare: charity, philanthropy and the state.

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