South Africa - The formation of the Irish Transvaal Brigade
Updated: Feb 28
In 1896 there were around 1,000 Irish living in the mining settlement of Johannesburg, including John MacBride who left Ireland in the same year and worked as an assayer on the J.B. Robinson goldmine at Langlaagte. Not all Irish migrants in the years before the Boer war went to the mines but many did. It was at these mines that some of the men become proficient in the use of dynamite. MacBride, who had taken the secret oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood stated he was drawn to South Africa after the failed Jameson Raid (29th Dec 1895- 2nd Jan 1896), convinced the English desired to take the country and he wished to organise fellow Irish men to ‘strike a blow at England’s power abroad.’ The Jameson Raid brought attention to the Irish nationalists in South Africa and men like MacBride who were key members of the community organised many gatherings with some taking place in the mine where MacBride worked.
On the 15th August 1898 an Irish parade took place through the streets of Johannesburg where the Uitlanders sang in celebration of the centenary of the 1798 Irish Rebellion which was a major uprising against British rule in Ireland. Irish Uitlanders were joined in the streets by fellow Uitlanders from America, France, Germany, Holland and Scandinavia as well as some Boers.
According to Thomas Byrne, a member of the Irish Transvaal Brigade, the idea of an Irish Commando was put to John MacBride who was in agreement and said that Irish Nationalists on the Rand should get together. Organisers visited mines to recruit Irish Nationalists and meetings were held. In 1899 a brigade was established to fight with the Boers if war was to break out against the British. Permission was sought from the President of the Transvaal Paul Kruger to establish a military unit of Irishmen. In addition, permission was made for the Irish Brigade to be granted citizen status. This was vitally important to the Irish as if captured by the British it would prevent them from being shot as traitors.
In October 1899 an Irish American Colonel John Young Filmore Blake was asked to take command of a group of Irish and Irish Americans of Johannesburg and Pretoria who had assembled. He put their number around 300 strong. Colonel Blake accepted the command on condition ‘that not one of them would expect or accept one cent of money for his services, and that all would fight purely for their love of liberty, and for down-trodden Ireland.’ This condition was unilaterally accepted and the horses, weapons and ammunition were procured and the brigade headed for the border of the British Colony of Natal.
The appointment of Colonel Blake over MacBride was due to Blake being an ex-US Cavalry Officer and MacBride having no military experience. Colonel Blake was born in Missouri in 1856 and graduated from West Point U.S. military academy in 1880. He served in t he 6th U.S. during the apache wars up until him resigning from the military in 1889.