Coffey enlists in the army

Life in the military was one of the few real alternatives to the life of a labourer, and William may well have considered it from an early age. Irishmen were soldiers in more than one European army, and in the British army of the nineteenth century they accounted for more than two-thirds of the men. The only other real possibility was emigration to the New World, which had certainly been growing since the beginning of the century but was not yet a common route. It was still enlistment that gave Irishmen their opportunity in 1846, when the life of a labourer became suddenly ever more precarious.

William inherited his father’s occupation - when he joined the army he gave his own occupation as ‘labourer’. The same vulnerability would have followed him from childhood - vulnerability to failure of the potato crop. A further cause of failure, and this time the cause of the most terrible of famines, was the potato blight which had first appeared in Europe, in Germany, in 1830 and had recently struck in North America in 1842. Now the Irish crop of 1845 was to fail, as potatoes were reduced to a black, stinking slime - if eaten, they were the cause of fever, stomach pains, nausea and dysentery. By March 1846 the price of potatoes was rising and there were insufficient potatoes for food and seed.

A long wet summer promised another bad crop as a foul stench lay over the rotting potato fields, and storms at the beginning of August proved the beginning of the worst winter on record - biting cold winds, torrential rains, mist, flooding and snow. Farmers were still trying to insist that starving labourers carry out the work they had been contracted to do. The first deaths arrived in October, and by November many employers had simply dismissed their labourers, leaving the land unworked and cabins deserted.

Coffey enlisted at the town of Fermoy in County Cork on 24 November 1846 (one later document mistakenly gives 25 November).

WO 67/14 24 November

25 November WO 97/1629

Fermoy would seem to be a natural enough place to join up - it was a military town containing not only an Old Barracks, but also a New Barracks and a military hospital. The town’s economy was largely reliant on the army. However, the military presence in the town was not what it had been, and the New Barracks had been entirely disused until half of it was taken over as a workhouse in 1841. Even before the famine, Fermoy had been a focal point for unemployed labourers, victims of eviction and beggars.

The town had been somewhat improved by the official famine relief works - pot holes had been filled, sewers had been dug, and road levels had been lowered, giving Fermoy its characteristic high pavements. But now the extreme weather hindered further progress. From September the beggars had finally turned to the workhouse for relief, but unemployed labourers continued to pour into Fermoy from the surrounding area in search of work. 

Fermoy’s magistrates had grown afraid that, since there was no hope of further relief works from the government, law and order would now finally break down altogether. So at the end of September they had put in a request that more troops be sent to the town. Then in October, the depot companies of the 82nd Regiment, stationed at Spike Island in Cork Harbour, were ordered to join the depot of the 77th Regiment in Fermoy’s Old Barracks.

And this 82nd Regiment of Foot - The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers - was the regiment in which William Coffey first enlisted on 24 November 1846. By that time the workhouse had become full, people were dying, and fever was a new object of fear. It has been estimated that two-thirds of the men who joined the British army in 1846 did so to avoid destitution - perhaps Coffey was among them, the situation in Ireland being the most acute of all.    

Coffey gave his age as 17 years 10 months, though in truth he was certainly younger or older. His height was measured at five feet five-and-a-quarter inches, but he still managed to grow a full three inches during his time of service. He also passed the medical - something that was normally failed by about a third of potential recruits - though this clean bill of health was hardly able to prevent him spending nearly the whole of his first week of army life in hospital!

Sixteen shillings was paid to the ‘party attesting or conducting’ him, and a bounty of £4 given to Coffey himself from which he would have provided some of his kit. Regular pay was certainly one advantage of enlistment, even if soldiers were paid less than others who had regular work. As an infantry soldier, Coffey would have been entitled to a shilling a day, but would not have received all of it in his pocket: deductions would be made for hospital treatment, subsistence, his uniform, the support of army pensioners, haircuts and so on. Nevertheless, to his advantage the year after he enlisted it was ordered that every soldier must receive at least a penny a day, whatever call for deductions there might be.

In 1847 Fermoy’s military hospital was handed over to the workhouse. Deaths among the workhouse residents were increasing: 186 in January, 271 in February, and 320 in March. Fears were expressed by the military authorities for the health of the soldiers occupying Old Barracks, as it was thought that the winds might carry disease from the nearby workhouse. Whether or not such concerns were a cause, in April the headquarters of the 82nd was moved away to Buttevant, and Coffey was placed on detachment at Croom back in County Limerick. He moved again the following month to Bruree, and then finally in June to the barracks at Spike Island to await the depot’s departure for Wales.

And after that Coffey never again returned to Ireland. By 1848 the depot was at Devonport in England where it met up with the regiment’s main body, which was returning from a tour of duty in Canada. In April 1851 they were back in Wales, and a year later they marched into Salford Barracks in England, before settling finally in Scotland, first at Glasgow and then at Stirling. But Coffey’s career was not only to bring him to almost every corner of Britain - the army was eventually to take him to Corfu and the Mediterranean Sea, to the Russian Crimea and the Black Sea, to India - Calcutta, Delhi, Lucknow, Lahore - to Nepal and the foothills of the Himalayas.