Project Big Kid: Playing soldiers at Vinegar Hill

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.

Tent life

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.

I was travelling with the 3rd East Kent Buffs Regiment, who had been invited to stay in the grounds of the 1798 Rebellion Centre in Enniscorthy.

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.

Re-enactor tents

Papa S, the happy camper

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.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE. MOVE ALONG PLEASE.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE. MOVE ALONG PLEASE.

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.

Maureen in the pub

Soldiers in a pub

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.

United Irishmen Enniscorthy streets

United Irishmen Enniscorthy

IMG_2625

British soldiers on the streets of Enniscorthy

Man down

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…

Freaky mannequin

I think this was meant to be a child of the Rebellion.

Freaky chess set

This guy was in a room full of chess pieces that looked like important figures from the Rebellion

1798 Rebellion Centre

Spot Dad

British soldiers outside Enniscorthy Castle

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.

Chivalry in action

The time came to wave the men off to battle.

Troops on Vinegar Hill

We watched from a distance as pike clashed with bayonet and the roar of canon fire ricocheted around the surrounding hills.

Battle of Vinegar Hill 2013

Battle of Vinegar Hill 2013

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.

Canon on Vinegar Hill

Battle of Vinegar Hill

Battle of Vinegar Hill

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.

Soldier's kit

What do you think? Fancy having a go or just watching from the sidelines?

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One thought on “Project Big Kid: Playing soldiers at Vinegar Hill

  1. I do believe the Buffs are in my painting queue. Don’t hold your breath as the queue is about ten years long.
    Reenactment can be fun (especially when the punters go home and you’re all gathered round the camp fire) but the other side of the coin: mud, more mud, wet kit and tents, and a friend having his hand blown off in a powder accident. Battle of Crecy.
    Still would do it all again. Fun days.

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