Reenacting in Ireland.


Reenacting in Ireland.

Barry Walsh stated that "reenacting truly started in Ireland in the 1780s in the form of Sham Fights here units of the Volunteers and Regulars of the British Army would recreate famous sieges and battles using the ruins of religious and fortified sites. Although they were part military training they were also great social occasions."

In the 1920s reenactments and historical pageants were a feature of the Tailteann Games and Army Tattoos.In the 1980s the Irish Army recreated the Burning of Moscow with a cast of hundreds, and extensive pyrotechnics with the Soviet Ambassador as guest of honor.

Modern reenactment dates to the late 1980s and 90s. An interest in Viking and Medieval lrish history gave rise to several groups. The bicentennial commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion in 1998 several "marching groups" were formed to commemorate the rebels.

Dave Swift observed that the movie, Saving Private Ryan, which was filmed in Ireland, using members of the Irish Army, brought history to Ireland's doorstep. Tola Collier stated, that "while living history and re-enactment has been evolving in Ireland for more than twenty years, the Irish State’s ‘Decade of Centenaries’ which began in 2013 has, over the past 8 years, greatly increased public interest in Irish history and in living history in particular."



A tradition of pageantry and reenactment has also existed in Northern Ireland in the form of the Sham Fights around the 12th of July which recreate the Battle of the Boyne. Barry Walsh's first impression was of the United lrish Army of the 1798 Rebellion, and subsequently joined a group that recreated an lrish Regiment in the Napoleonic wars. With his group they also developed portrayals of the lrish in the Great War 1914-18 and the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921.

In Ireland battle reenactments mainly take place with the cooperation and financial support of the Office of Public Works (the national heritage body equivalent to the National Parks Service in the USA), and County Councils. Barry Walsh's group organised some of the biggest reenactments in Ireland including the Battle of Vinegar Hill reenactments and the In Humberts Footsteps festival. In both cases they partnered with the County Councils in those areas and advised them on community involvement. His unit provided style guides to help people dress in period appropriate outfits. Reenactors provided living history camps as the centrepiece to wider festival events.

People do not pay to watch reenactments. Heritage sites run by the OPW are generally free to enter. Events run in connection with County Councils are for the benefit of the community. Some private heritage sites and tourist attractions may charge an entrance fee.

Ireland has been engaged in a Decade of Commemorations around the centenary of the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921. As part of that, the nation has been looking closely at its history, challenging some narratives and restoring some history to its proper place. It has been a national dialogue which has shaped how events were reenacted and how the participants on all sides were remembered.

This type of living history usually takes place at heritage sites. Some sites like the Battle of the Boyne Centre have resident reenactors who demonstrate weapons uniforms etc.Other sites may have guides who work "in character" as they interact with the public. Groups may also be invited to do pop upliving history at the many museums, castles and Great houses.

There are several professionals accredited by the Department of Education who travel to schools to do interactive presentations and workshops. Most reenactment groups in Ireland would also receive invitations to give presentations to schools in their areas.

As mentioned above this type of event usually takes place in partnership with the OPW or the local County Council. Battle reenactments usually have a "lead reenactment group" that organises other groups to attend, plans the battle and provides the powder on a budget from the organisers. Usually these events are held to mark major anniversaries of the battle on or close to the site of the battle. Usually there will be a period camp open to the public with a larger festival going on in the local area. They are not for profit, but are used to promote heritage and general tourism. Reenactments on many occasions are part of the tourist industry, and reenactors are generally paid for their participation. Dave Swift asked "why would you PAY to reenact?" "kit costs money, and these events help you purchase more authentic items for these public events."

Immersion Events.

This is confined mainly to the earlier Viking and Medieval period groups in Ireland. This divides living history in Ireland into three subsets: 

a). Training events where once the drill and health and safety is completed, groups will have tactical events to round out a day or weekend training. Our medieval period groups would also have tactical events featuring hand to hand combat.

b). We have manly multiperiod shows where groups from a wide range of periods come together for public shows often in partnership with militaryvehicle collectors. Usually there will be an arena where each period will have a time slot to do a presentation or a tactical "skirmish".

c). movies-reenactors here will participate as extras, or consultants in movies People work on numerous history documentaries, period films, informational films for museums, and online documentaries, and as an advisers, wardrobe, specialist extra and armourer.


There is a lot of cross pollination with military vehicle enthusiasts in lreland.

Time Periods.

We have groups that recreate everything from the Dark Ages, through Viking Ireland to the Tudor Age. There are groups that portray the Irish soldier as he was seen worldwide during the 16th and 17th century. The period 1798 to 1815 is popular as the Rebellion and Napoleonic Wars featured Irishmen on all sides. We have ACW reenactors and most groups have a mix of Union and Confederate portrayal. We also have groups made up from our European migrant communities with Polish, Lithuania and other groups who portray their Napoleonic or WW2 history. Many veterans of the Irish Defense Forces come to reenactment via military vehicle groups and reenact their Peacekeeping service with the UN which is an important part of our national story.

Dave Swift said that the movie Gettysburg was an eye opener to many Irish reenactors who were awe struck by the sheer numbers of participants in the United States. He sated that these numbers are quite different in Ireland, breaking it down by periods, he observed that by far the most popular period is the Viking reenactors, numbering at about 300 nationwide. This is followed by the Roman at about 100. 1916 independence periods has about 100-200 people.

The Clontarf reenactment in 2014 marked the 1,000 year anniversary of the battle. The Irish government widely supported this, and it was attended by over 500 reenactors and 40,000 spectators.

On the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Ashbourne, BOACC organised a historical re-enactment on the site as part of the Irish State Commemorations. The event included a recreated RIC barracks, vintage cars and uniformed re-enactors from across Ireland and was watched by a large audience as well as being televised. BOACC continues to work with local and central government on the Decade of Centenaries.

Dave Swift pointed out that these events, are designed and supported by the Irish Government to have a unifying effect, an to a certain extent, to control the narrative. These events include impressions of the Old IRA (Michael Collins), as well as the droconian Black and Tan mercenaries.

Women in Reenacting.

Melissa Sheils has been reenacting since 2002, She said "it is hard to say how many women re-enact/do living history. Not as many men, but a goodly proportion, perhaps 30%" She said that she is in a group called the PARDS - which is mostly men. It's American Civil War. I am also in a group called The White Horse Vikings, so I do Viking with them. There are no groups specifically just for women, most groups have men and women in them. As to female roles, that depends. For Vikings, you do have some women dressing in male Viking clothing and fighting. You don't get that in Roman, ACW, or Tudor. When asked what is the most popular period for women, she said "Viking, but that's simply because it's the largest period by far. The influx of Polish and other Eastern  European re-enactors into Ireland has boosted the amount of people that do that period, although it was always popular before the population influx. ...and lots of women fought too, it's just that they had to make twice the kit as the men. I used to do longbow archery and I would spend my day changing clothes from male kit to do archery in, and female kit to sew in the tent.

Paid reenacting.

Many public events are run by county councils or the Office of Public Works, so they will pay a group for coming along. Technically, it is the government, because it is tax money being used for a public event, but reenactors aren't on some government payroll. Yes, I get paid for every event, except one or 2 charity events I decide to do free if charge. Like Americans, German reenactors pay to go to events, which is crazy to us here."

It's one of the first attitudes I encountered in the living history scene. A woman named Jessica de Burca Montague has a living history business. She drummed into me the importance of reenactors getting paid. Events need us. We put in supreme amounts of time and research and shouldn't just be thrown a couple of sandwiches and a cup of tea for our work of talking to the public all day. Never mind all the work we put into research, sewing, weaving, buying the right armour/weapons, etc..But along with that comes a high standard. You can't charge for wearing polyester curtains, you have to do research and be able to share it.


But you have to understand one key difference in the American living history scene vs. The Irish one. We do have lots of historical buildings here, but for the large part they are completely empty inside, and not open all year round. Most of them only from May to September. And people walk in and see empty rooms of a 15th century castle with some informational pictures. We don't have lots of furnished buildings like Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, or Genessee Country Museum. So having living historians there provides crucial colour and added vibrancy to a historic building once or twice a year. These weekends where we rock up usually draw big numbers, but the sites can't sustain having us there (or costumed tour guides) all the time. There are a few places that do have costumed tour guides, but they are not doing crafts at the same time.


Whether people make their own equipment or buy off the shelf is dependent on the period they recreate. While it is easy for WW2 reenactors to purchase kit for their period, someone recreating a medieval Irish kern is likely going to have to make his own leine (shirt) although most groups have among them skilled tailors and seamstresses and crafts people who produce kit for the group. Research is imperative in reenacting. Ireland has a wide span of unique history so research and consultation with experts is vital no matter what period is involved.

In Ireland we are a community. We try to encourage and assist new entrants. The best thing to do is join an established group for the period you wish to recreate. Most will have spare kit that they can loan until a person can assemble their own kit. We always encourage people to continue improving. Nothing is ever finished, there are always new details to discover and recreate.

Indeed most groups would practice some level of experimental archaeology; taking first hand accounts and attempting to recreate the kit described to find out as much as we can.


When asked if there is a difference between hardcore versus entry level reenactors, Mark O'Brien said "there is very little difference made of each level as the attitude of most reenactors is that ' we all have to start somewhere ' and 99% of guys involved are very helpful ."

Firearms and Legislation.

Firearms in Ireland is substantially different between northern and southern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, Muskets and black powder weapons are licensed as shotguns. Rifles require a higher level of licence so it may be easier to have a firearm that has been converted to blank firing. Live fire automatic weapons are not allowed for civilians so gas firing replicas are used for machine guns. Even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK, a visitor licence is required for anyone travelling there from Great Britain.


In the Southern Ireland republic, it is more difficult. Muskets can be held on a firearms licence with usually a generous ammunition allowance. However, traveling with your musket from the Republic to Northern Ireland, a separate blackpowder licence is required. Reenactors most often carry dewat and demilled firearms, and a permit must be issued for each one. This permit MUST be carried on your person at all times, and presented to any law enforcement officer upon request. Failure to do so, could result in this non firearm in being impounded. Bolt action rifles, such as Lee Enfields can be obtained, but require a special license. In order to obtain this license, you must have an unblemished record. Reenactors in general try to develop a relationship with the Gardai (Irish national police) to educate them about the hobby of reenactment. Travel in the EU with firearms is facilitated by the common European Firearms Passport.


Airsoft is also popular in Ireland and replica airsoft guns are popular for vehicle collectors and modern period/20th century reenactors.

Goals and Objectives.

Owing to the centuries long history, there are many historic sites and buildings. The most important usually come under the management of the state through the OPW. Others are supervised by County Councils through what you might call building codes. This is a very wide subject, probably beyond the scope of this overview. Just a few other comments. We have a lot of history.


Are the preservations of battlefields and historic sites emphasized in lreland? Unfortunately we have so many battlefields on Ireland that encroachment and development has happened in many places without check. However in the last 20 years the importance of battlefields in the landscape is more appreciated.

Archaeological investigation and survey of important battlefields has been happening. Some sites like the Battle of the Boyne site have international importance and have interpretive centres that explain their history and importance.

This sentiment was echoed by Barry Walsh, sho said "I think we are too small a community to give rise to movements of any kind. We simply encourage each other to improve in a friendly and competitive spirit."

This article was published on Tuesday 09 March, 2021.
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