In 1782, the ruling Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland were given countrywide self-rule by the British Parliament, greatly increasing the powers of the Irish Parliament, situated at College Green in Dublin. One of the first items addressed by the new parliament was the Trade Agreement that restricted what goods could and could not be imported or exported from the country. A new agreement, which included amended excise duties, was set in place and was designed to provoke a more powerful and independent parliament in Dublin. This move led to a wave of visionary ideas and elaborate plans for the economic and cultural development of what was then referred to as the 'Kingdom of Ireland.' One bold plan was for the formation of a 'colony' of artisans and intellectuals from across the continent of Europe, in an effort to stimulate trade.
On February 5, 1781, a group of Protestant intellectuals, artisans and craftsmen in various trades, broke into the municipal armory in the city of Geneva, Switzerland, and armed themselves. The reason behind their shocking act was a demand for the right to work and ply their various trades within the city walls and more importantly, the right to vote. In response, the General Council of Geneva, the largest of the city's legislative bodies, agreed to grant voting rights to 100 natives and 20 inhabitants. However, the more elite legislative body, the Genevan Small Council, baulked at ratifying this token offer of appeasement and stalled for over a year before eventually voting to block the proposal. Within hours of the vote, revolutionaries occupied the City Hall, closed the city gates, held hostage those who voted against their demands, and demanded that the General Council support them. The city's wealthy leaders instead persuaded the Kingdom of France, the city-state of Bern, and the Kingdom of Sardinia to send professional troops to quell the rebellion. This in turn forced many of the rebels to flee the country after which the city was returned to the government by the troops. The failed rebellion against the ruling Catholic French and Swiss alliance led to a wave of Genevan refugees in Europe. As artisans, they were valued for their knowledge and skills and many were invited to settle in Ireland. A site in County Waterford was quickly acquired for the anticipated arrivals and was named New Geneva, after the country of origin of the new settlers.
The Irish Parliament allotted a total of £56,000 to buy land and build a town to house the immigrants, in the barony of Gaultier, east Waterford county, and began building with the intention of accommodating at least 1,000 new settlers. The public reason given for bringing them in was to establish a group of skilled merchants which would help to boost trade and commerce in Waterford city and the nation as a whole; but there were ulterior motives. The authorities secretly hoped the influx of Protestant settlers would cause a direct imbalance among the local Catholic population. Earl Temple, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote a letter to Chief Secretary Grenville, where he noted putting the Swiss in Waterford “might make an essential reform in the religion, industry and mores of the South for those who want it.” This also meant that the government would establish a new college but needed to keep it secret from the governors of Trinity College, who had a monopoly on education. An advance party of the settlers arrived in Waterford with the intention of setting up a silk industry, but as events unfolded, the governors never had to worry as the mission failed before it began.
James Gandon, the celebrated architect, was commissioned to prepare a plan for the town which would have been almost rectangular in shape, 2,700 ft long, overlooking Waterford Estuary. A rectangular site for a church was to be positioned at each end and was to be backed by streets and terraces of houses. A central square was to have been overlooked by a central church with an apse and was surrounded by terraces of houses. There were to be two other open squares, one to the south overlooked by the Academy with the Market in the southwest corner. Another courtyard to the north was to be overlooked by the Town Hall. A prison or hospital was to be located at the northwest corner of the town, which had many design similarities with the French city of Richelieu. Work on the New Geneva site proceeded but negotiations between the Irish government and Genevan leaders broke down over Swiss demands that the government felt were unreasonable. The arrangement fell through, the Genevans returned home and the buildings were left derelict.
In 1783, a military barracks was created on the site of the former settlement that had been created for the settlers from Geneva who had earlier abandoned their plans to settle in Waterford. New barracks were built to house companies of militia newly raised following the outbreak of war between revolutionary France and Britain in 1793. The militia's purpose was to complement the regular forces stationed across the estuary in County Wexford at Duncannon Fort and to protect nearby Passage East in the event of French invasion. By 1798, the barracks was capable of holding almost 2,000 soldiers. The outbreak of the United Irish rebellion in May 1798 achieved its greatest success in County Wexford and for a time County Waterford was threatened. However, the rebel defeat at New Ross on 5 June prevented the breakout of Wexford rebels and discouraged Waterford rebels from taking to the field. The barracks then became a temporary holding centre for rebels and never held less than 1,000 prisoners by the summer of 1798. The prison at Geneva Barracks quickly became notorious for its atrocious conditions and ill treatment of prisoners.
Most prisoners held who were not sentenced to death and executed were transported to Australia or pressed into the Royal Navy. However, emissaries of the King of Prussia were first allowed to select the fittest men from among the prisoners to serve in his armed forces in part payment for services rendered by his Hessians in suppressing the rebellion. Thomas Cloney, one of the rebel leaders at the battles of Three Rocks, New Ross and Foulksmills, endured confinement at New Geneva while under sentence of death, which was later commuted to exile by General Lord Cornwallis. He claimed that the scars of the manacles put on him during his time in New Geneva were visible decades later. The soldiers at New Geneva barracks were suspicious and cruel toward locals, so much so that even a century afterwards, memories of the 1798 outrages lingered among the people and the barracks became a symbol of tyranny and oppression that lasts in the Irish consciousness to the present day. As well as the untold numbers of executions carried out, many forms of torture were inflicted upon the prisoners including flogging, half-hanging and the notorious 'pitchcapping.' Another cruel form used was 'blanketing,' where the soldiers would grab a blanket, strip the victim naked and hoist them in the air repeatedly for upwards of 20 minutes.
The barracks gradually fell into disuse following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and were finally closed in 1824. Today, only the outer walls and some partially buried remains give note to the impressive size of the Genevan buildings. All that is left of Geneva Barracks is a dilapidated farmhouse and the remains of watch towers erected in 1798. In the 19th century, the lands passed to Lord Waterford who sold them to a local merchant. This man, named Galwey, dismantled the barracks and moved the stonework to augment his premises in Dungarvan. A marker now commemorates the Geneva site, with a prisoner’s description of the barracks as “the filthiest, most damp and loathsome prison, devoid of any comfort.” It is remembered in James McBurney’s "The Croppy Boy" (featured in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses), the last verse of which reads:
At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy.”
(Many thanks to Wikipedia for some of the information used in this article.)
© John A. Brennan 2019. All Rights Reserved.