The medal awarded to Cork born Private Michael Minihan – one of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu War in 1879 – comes up at auction by Dix Noonan Webb in London on December 8. He was one of 16 Irishmen known to be among the 150 strong British garrison which fought off an attack by up to 4,000 Zulu warriors. No less than eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the defence of the mission station – the former trading post of Irish merchant James Rorke. The 1964 film Zulu starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine was based on this battle.
The victorious Zulus then headed for Rorke’s Drift where the tiny garrison, some of whom were hospital patients, found themselves in a desperate battle for survival. Minehan was posted in the cattle kraal, which formed part of the defensive perimeter and eventually had to be evacuated. Captain William Penn-Symonds, an officer in the 24th who was part of the force which relieved Rorke’s Drift knew the Irish soldier well and later wrote: “Minehan was a great pal of mine; he was right-hand man, front rank of ‘B’ Company, who knew his drill well and had often kept me straight.” The day after the battle Private Minehan, who was so exhausted that he could not speak, took Penn-Symonds to the corner of the kraal where he had been stationed. He indicated the body of a Zulu, partly hidden under the straw. During the siege the Zulu had crawled under the straw and grabbed Minehan by the leg. Minehan had thrust his bayonet into the straw killing his assailant.
After his service in the Zulu War Michael Minihan was posted back to India. In 1884 he contracted cholera, was sent back to England and discharged as medically unfit. He died in May 1891 and is buried in Castletownsend. The grave marker, a cross of wrought iron, was inscribed Michael Minihan, Late of the 24th Regiment and one of the gallant defenders of Rorke’s Drift. His campaign medal for South Africa 1877-79 with clasp 1877-8-9 is estimated at £26,000-30,000.