The Royal Irish Regiment is to open a state-of-the-art £12m museum in Belfast which is intended to be an international tourist attraction.
The regiment, which is currently drawing half of new recruits from the Republic of Ireland, has recently signed off the purchase of an as-yet-confidential property with almost 2000 square feet of space in central Belfast. The project is headed by Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Andy Hart.
Fund-raising will begin soon to reach the estimated £12m needed to complete the museum, which it is hoped will open in 3-5 years as a national tourist attraction, depending on funding progress.
Regimental Secretary Colin Gray told the News Letter that the intent is to create “a national level museum”.
“The Imperial War Museum has a footprint across Great Britain and in Dublin you have got the Irish Museum and the National Museums of Ireland have their exhibitions,” he said. “But there is nothing in Northern Ireland which is of a national standard and that is our aspiration - to create something on the level of a national level collection.”
The regiment already has connections with the Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum in London and National Museums of Ireland.
There is every possibility that exhibits will be on loan from the Imperial War Museum, he added.
“There is also a lot of regimental silver which belonged to the disbanded Irish infantry regiments which is kept in vaults in the National Army Museum in London. It would be great to borrow that and put it on display in Belfast.”
One of the many fascinating exhibits will be the keys from the infamous Nazi prison of Coldtiz Castle, which were taken by a member of one of the unit’s formative regiments when he was freed in WWII.
The museum will also commemorate the history the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), which was founded in 1970 and merged with the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment in 1992. Over 260 members and former UDR members were murdered in terror attacks during the Troubles.
The Regiment’s motto ‘Faugh-a-Ballagh’ (Clear the Way) was born at the battle of Barrosa in 1811.
The plan is to consolidate existing regimental museums across Northern Ireland, including The Inniskillings museum in Enniskillen, the Royal Irish Fusiliers museum in Armagh, and the Royal Ulster Rifles museum in Warings Street in Belfast.
All three regiments amalgamated in 1968 to form Royal Irish Rangers, which in turn merged with the UDR in 1992 to create the Royal Irish Regiment.
“The new museum will also tell the story of the story of the disbanded Irish infantry regiments which ceased to exist in 1922 after partition,” Mr Gray said.
These include the Connaught Rangers, The original Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Leinster Regiment.
About 30% of the first Battalion are drawn from the Republic of Ireland, which has jumped to 50% of new recruits from the south in the current year so far.
Asked why so many recruits are coming from the south, Mr Gray said: “Maybe it is the attraction of serving in the British army which maybe has more opportunities to go overseas and go on operations.
“Maybe we are getting the word out there more effectively about how great a regiment it is to serve in.
“Or maybe it is that the more and more people that come from the Republic have served in the Royal Irish Regiment and so more people know about it... a virtuous spiral. We don’t care frankly, we just love having people join from any part of the island of Ireland.”
Antecedent regiments served at Waterloo, the Battle of the Somme and Normandy. in 2006 the regiment was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross by the Queen in recognition of service of Home Service battalions and their forebears, the UDR.