My dad is the archetypal big kid. He collects military figurines, builds model railways but mostly he likes to play at being a soldier.
Almost every weekend during the summer, Papa S throws his musket, tent and red coat in the boot of the car and drives off to re-enact a battle somewhere in Europe. Despite only being born in 1953, he fancies himself as a private in Wellington’s army and takes great joy in
boring his family sharing his enthusiasm for the subject with others.
Last summer, he invited me along to one such re-enactment in Ireland. I was hesitant. Having studied 200 years of Irish history at A level, I wasn’t sure how a bunch of Englishmen in redcoats marching through a quiet Wexford town would go down. Still, I was facing a long period of potential unemployment and had an urge to travel so I accepted.
Re-enactment attracts a real range of people. Whole families enlist together, or get roped into because it’s something their child/parent/spouse wants to do. Others just do it to learn more about a period of history, or hone a traditional craft. But everybody’s there to escape their real lives for a little while.
After a rough ferry journey across the Irish Sea (not recommended), we arrived in Enniscorthy and set up our tents just as the rest of the town was beginning to stir.
The great thing about re-enactors is that they are shameless. If you don’t enjoy being the centre of attention, this hobby is not for you. Almost as soon as we de-camped, the group were scrambling to change into their uniforms or camp followers outfits. I stayed in my civvies for as long as possible before eventually conceding and putting on the costume Dad’s friend Maureen kindly leant me.
You might think that military re-enactors spend most of their time re-enacting battles. Wrong. You’re more likely to find this lot in the pub than on the battlefield. And who can blame them? The great joy of being a big kid is that you can play like a kid, whilst still benefiting from the freedom adults enjoy.
After trying out several of the town’s watering holes, Dad and his comrades did eventually prepare for battle. Muskets were cleaned, lines were formed and the troops marched into their first battle of the weekend.
In 1798, British troops marched through Wexford, only to be stopped by local United Irishmen -farm labourers by profession- armed with pikes and other rudimentary weapons. The 1798 Rebellion Centre, who organised the event, encouraged locals to re-enact the actions of their forefathers and take to the streets to defend the town against Dad&co. The residents of Enniscorthy heartily accepted the invitation, and whole families, from small children to grandparents, donned flat caps and green jackets to show the British what they were made of.
Between battles, there was chance to repair uniforms and kit. We even managed a trip around the Rebellion Centre and Enniscorthy Castle, both of which are well worth a visit should you find yourself in those parts, although if you’re anything like my mannequin-fearing friend Nat, it might be best to give the Rebellion Centre a miss. Some of these guys were just a little bit creepy…
After a hard day’s fighting, the troops, both English and Irish, returned to the pub for vital refreshments. I made use of the pub’s running water and brushed my teeth in the ladies’ before being walked back to our campsite by a toothless Irishman whose name I now forget.
Rain woke us the next morning and continued as the troops practised drill. Tourists and journalists flooded in from across the country, ready for the weekend’s big event at Vinegar Hill. Eventually the skies cleared and the British men began the climb to the site of one of the most notorious sites of the 1798 rebellion.
Meanwhile, we camp followers had fun making new friends and Maureen discovered that chivalry is not yet dead.
The time came to wave the men off to battle.
We watched from a distance as pike clashed with bayonet and the roar of canon fire ricocheted around the surrounding hills.
This is where the big kids really got to show off their playful side. Dramatic charges, galloping horses and theatrical deaths made the crowd ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ in equal measure before suddenly the battle was over, and the bodies that littered the hillside jumped up and shook hands, showing there were no hard feelings between the old enemies.
Re-enactment isn’t for everyone, it certainly isn’t for me, but for those who take part, it offers a wealth of benefits. You get to travel lots, meet hundreds of new people and have the opportunity to learn countless new skills. Weekends spent under canvas and marching across battlefields means exercise and adventure and provides a great excuse to escape the modern world for a few days.
History repeats itself next weekend, as the re-enactment returns to Enniscorthy for the Irish August bank holiday (2-3 August). If you’re interested in going to watch (and I recommend you do), click here for Vinegar Hill’s programme of events.
If you’re interested in taking up the king’s shilling and enlisting in a re-enactment group, contact the friendly chaps and ladies of the Buffs.
What do you think? Fancy having a go or just watching from the sidelines?