Background to the Irish in WWI, and thoughts on Irish servicemen in the First World War. – Forgotten heroes and the truth that does not speak its name.
In August and September 1914, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Party and its MPs at Westminster, made speeches, notably at Woodenbridge in County Wicklow and at Maryborough, now Portlaoise, where he exhorted party members, and specifically members of the 150,000-strong Irish Volunteer movement, to join the Allied and British war effort, to enlist and fight for Britain in the First World War.
Redmond argued from a position of strength, not weakness. The Irish Party stood at an historic crossroads, having earlier just that year, finally attained what both Daniel O’Connell (and their own legendary former leader, Charles Stuart Parnell) had both failed to attain, the Holy Grail of Irish Home, a large measure of autonomy and an Irish Parliament, governing Ireland again from Dublin. (*a prerogative taken away over 100 years earlier, following the 1801 Act of Union)
C.S. Parnell. 1841-1891.
Redmond’s party had now finally achieved this, following an intense, epic political struggle of over 30 years, with two previous Home Rule Bills defeated (1886, and 1893) and in the face of endless opposition from Conservative Tories, the British House of Lords and, most vehemently of all, from Irish Unionists across Ireland but concentrated in Ulster, (the only part of Ireland they formed a majority).
When war broke out in summer of 1914, the Home Rule Act had already been passed and only its implementation was delayed for the duration of the war. Nobody believed this would be more than few months, a year at the most. Despite some remaining details to be resolved, the Home Rule Bill was now the Home Rule Act, passed into law, a fait accompli.
Redmond was a patriot but not an outright Republican. Unlike previous radical, nationalist such as Robert Emmet and Wolf Tone, he did want to maintain some link with Britain, but in the same sense that Canada or Australia did, as autonomous nations preserving an historic, mostly symbolic connection. Make no mistake however, Redmond was, emphatically a patriot, struggling for what he passionately believed was best for Ireland. Even his urging for nationalists to enlist, which may seem folly now, was driven equally by principal, and by political strategy (giving nationalist greater leverage after the war) and finally of a grand vision, namely his belief that his Irish Nationalists, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Irish Ulster Unionist would build comradeship. Indeed he hoped it might, possibly even make the dreaded partition of Ireland unnecessary.
It is one of the great myths of Ireland, (perhaps now politically necessary) that the only “real” patriots from 1916 until independence were Republicans. On the contrary, between 1880 and 1916, they formed a minority, and physical force Republicans in particular a tiny minority within that minority.
Conversely, the constitutionalists Irish Party (IP) and their armed but law-abiding patriot Irish Volunteer movement (IV) represented the vast swath of Nationalist, patriot opinion.
Both IP and the IVs represented a broad church, with many shades of opinion and wanting different degrees of separatism. Nonetheless, what happened after Redmond’s speech may surprise people outside Ireland familiar only with the story of the Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence, and perhaps not familiar with Irish Involvement in the First World War.
Of the 150,000 Volunteers, a tiny 9,600 demurred with Redmond. This splinter refused to serve and argued against his position. Of the rest, over 140,000 volunteered and served. That’s a proportion of something like 93%.
Not 93% of Irish people overall mind you, including Unionist and the like, but of Irish Nationalists, proud, Irish, mostly Catholic, Home Rule- marching agitating, supporting nationalists. 93% felt they should support Britain (and Belgium and France) against Germany.
In fact, by the end of the war over 200,000 would serve. They would fight in Gallipoli and in the muddy hell of the Western Front, fighting, bleeding and dying alongside Scots, Welsh, English, Indians, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Africans and South Africans, men from across the world, for what they believed were the rights of small nations, against Imperialist Germany and for civilized values. Nor, unless you believe what Max Hastings has called “the Blackadder view of history” were they blinded sheep to believe so.
Imperial Germany in occupied territory had already executed Belgian civilians and was now busy taking civilian hostages in France and Belgium, as well as ruthlessly asset stripping the countryside for everything from livestock and telegraph poles to factory plant, coal and iron ore. They were doing as the Normans, then the English, had once done in Ireland, only hundreds of years later.
A total of 49,000 of the Irish troops would die, nearly 1 in 4. These figures are complex: 30,000+ Irish would perish in the British military while the rest of the Irish causality total includes (first-generation) Irish from Canada, then American units joining the war later, arriving Europe 1917.
Back home, from 1914-15, support for the war, and for Irishmen serving in it, was all but universal. The only dissent came from radical nationalists and the extreme physical force tradition of Irish republicanism.
But if you ever wanted an illustration that’s it’s the winners who write the history books, here is the classic case study, almost Bolshevik, in its ruthless manufacture of consent.
This small rump group would be the winners, at least historically speaking. They now formed the IRB. And within that group was an even smaller splinter faction, the secret IRB war council. These republicans held to the old maxim England’s difficulty is Ireland opportunity. Secretly they began to plan an armed insurrection, where they would seize key buildings in the capital, and proclaim an Irish Republic.
When the Rising went ahead in Easter 1916, the initial reaction among most “ordinary Dubliners” (a term I loath, but you know what I mean) was disbelief, incredulity and considerable irritation.
Thousands upon thousands of Dublin women had husbands, sons or brothers serving at the front, (often more than one of such family) stuck in an incredibly dangerous, brutal war, the biggest war in history in fact to that date. They naturally wanted them home safe, as soon as possible. Anything else that distracted from this aim was seen as dangerous folly.
More immediately, the rebel’s takeover of the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street meant these women could not get the army pay sent home each week to support their families. Given our grand, nationalist narrative we’ve all been spoon-fed since the age of 14, this may sound trivial. It may even sound amusing. Now, perhaps look at some pictures of Dublin tenement life, poverty, shortages, and the perilous state of Dublin’s poor, even those with jobs, constantly struggling. Does it sound trivial now? Is it possible there was a level of snobbery, from the later nationalist elite, towards “the vulgar women” of Dublin? Let’s not fall into the same trap.
What changed and radicalized opinions of course was the brutal, stupid, utterly cack-handed response of the British to the Rising, as clumsy and vicious and brutal as it was politically inept. They brought a gunboat up the Liffey, fired shells from heavy artillery in the park, and razed half of O’Connell street to rubble.
Meanwhile most Irish people’s attitude to the rebels started to shift. Even those who did not agree with the rebels, (which was most) still noted their courage.
The hasty trials and rapid execution of all seven signatories of the proclamation of the Irish republic left a bad taste in the mouth. A mad English army captain murdered the unarmed intellectual Sheehy-Skeffington.
Tying the dying socialist rebel leader James Connelly too weak to stand, already half-dead to a chair, in order to shoot him sitting down. Executing the young Willie Pears, (simply because he was Patrick’s brother) stank of petty vindictive violence.
William (L) , and Patrick Pearse (M) and James Connelly. (R)
What about shelling the centre of Dublin, supposedly the second city of the Empire? You have to ask yourself, would the British establishment have behaved in the same way if, say, a socialist rebellion had broken out in Manchester, Glasgow or east London?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that, although it’s an interesting thought-experiment. They conceivably might have. The riot act was declared in Glasgow when Clyde side shipyard workers demonstrated. There were serious cabinet discussions about sending in the tanks. With, as I say, a fight for survival going on; nothing could be allowed detract from the war effort.
Irish people are slow to acknowledge that Britain as a whole faced a genuine, existential threat in 1916 right through to mid-summer of 1918. Tens of thousands could die, in a single week, on the Western Front (including of course, Irish servicemen, the forgotten victims of all this)
Many things we associate with WWII actually happened in the Great War first. Bombs were dropped on cities, causing terror from the skies. (One bomb hit a girls primary school in London, killing dozens of small children)
German U-boats destroyed allied merchant shipping by the thousands of tones, causing acute food shortages, designed to starve the country into submission, and very nearly succeeding. In this context, and from an English perspective only, the Easter Rising really (think about it) really did seem an outrageous, disgusting stab in the back.
But of course different rules apply. Ireland is not like, and never was like, the rest of Britain. The perception was everyone’s land had been stolen and given to Cromwellian adventurers. (not, mind you that the former Catholic gentry elite’s land had been given to Cromwellian adventurers, (probably a more accurate version of events, but one that held and still holds little sway). It was on the other hand absolutely true that Irish Catholics had been denied equal rights and subject to various mean spirited discrimination, via the odious penal laws , (the right to vote until 1793) , to stand as representatives (until Daniel O’Connell’s political genius in the 1830s and 40s) that Irishmen had been denied access to careers in the army and navy by dint of the pernicious Test Act and so on.
In other words, centuries of smoldering resentment lay buried, latent under the surface. It would now be reawakened by the Eater Rebels’ sacrifice, combined with the haste, blundering, and cruelty of the British.
With Bernard Shaw and others warning caution vainly over in London, General Maxwell was deaf to all wiser council and put Dublin under martial law. Those images. Connelly tied to his chair. Young Willie Pearce shot dead. The flames of that smoldering ancient, almost tribal resentment were fanned, aided by some masterful propaganda. Badges and pins of the executed rebels appeared, as martyrs now, Pearce the elder almost Christ-like, pale and wan, noble, a lamb.
I’d better put my cards on the table and say that I admire the Easter rebels, but not because they indirectly, ultimately, brought about Irish independence. While it is entirely true though that they did, it’s only true because of the course of history we took, a course of history they effectively forced. No, I admire their courage; their strength of conviction, their genuine and sincerely belief they were doing the right thing for their country and even for the relatively civilized and humane way they conducted their struggle. (The 1916 Proclamation of Independent is a true republican document, (in the sense of the American and French models) empathizing equal rights, non-sectarian, and also urging rebel combatants to behave with restraint and honour)
While it may be a bit complicated for some people, it is in fact possible to respect people while strongly disagreeing with them. (You’ll know Voltaire’s famous maxim on this, the benchmark of civilized, meaningful discourse, indeed of civilization itself)
So, while I may personally admire the Easter rebels, I very definitely, strongly disagree with them. In fact I think they were just plain wrong, not only militarily (blindingly obvious) but also and far more importantly, politically and even morally. Brave, determined, even admirable yes in many ways, but still doing immense damage to the country they loved. I’m going to argue my reasons why over the next 2000-odd words.
Why? Because Ireland would have become Independent anyway. It was a historical inevitability. No, this isn’t looking through the telescope backwards, nor being wise after the event. As discussed in the opening paragraphs of this piece, the first, vital step to full autonomy, (the 1914 Home Rule Act) was already in the bag, almost two years before the secret, unelected and undemocratic IRB secret war council, entirely without any form of mandate from the Irish people, made their preemptive strike.
Ah, but Home Rule is not Independence, some will argue. That’s very true, but here’s the killer: nor was the 1922 Irish Free State full independence either.
Unfortunately, the provisions of 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in London by Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and the other Irish delegates on one side (and by Lloyd-George, Churchill, Chamberlain, Birkenhead and others on the British side) was (deep breath) not substantially different to the previous 1914 Home Rule Act passed and temporarily delayed by WWI just 8 years earlier. It is a tragedy in my view that the leader Eamon de Valera (who had fought bravely in 1916, (only spared by the British because of ambiguity over his citizenship) could not see what Collins saw, could not share his vision or pragmatism.
The real difference is that the later came about only after 2 years of the savage, destructive, costly Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) with the Black and Tans drunkenly raging around the country, shooting up villages, brutalizing civilians, like psychopathic thugs, with the axillaries massacring crowds in Croke park, and the IRA burning down big country houses. And the former, (Home Rule) was already achieved remember prior to the Easter rebellion, was successively attained via exclusively democratic, peaceful means, with the country and infrastructure intact, savagery and bloodshed avoided, deep rifts and bitterness avoided, and with no loss of life in Ireland.
So, if the 1922 version of semi or proto-Irish Independence, the Free State, which which Michael Collins admitted was not full independence but correctly predicted did contain the means to our ultimate Independence, if this was not substantially different to the previous 1914 Home Rule Act, then what the hell was all the fighting, bloodshed and destruction for?
In the final hard headed analysis, stripped bare Nationalist clichés, of inter-cert history lessons half remembered and republican hagiography, could it possibly be that it was in fact all for nothing? or at least that the incredible sacrifice, animosity and bloodshed and bitterness, did not achieve much more than was originally offered by the 1913 Home Rule Act? It seems unthinkable. Perhaps this is the great, dreaded Irish truth that dares not, cannot speak its name.
I’m very glad we are independent. But let’s face it, we would have been anyway, in time. Remember we would have had Home Rule anyway. Remember Collins analysis of a similar partial freedom and what it could and world lead to in time. Then bear in mind also that the British Empire was, for “white’ “dominion” countries at least, turning into a commonwealth of associated nations anyway, with members free to remain or depart after a respectful, face-saving pause. And all oif the Empire gradually came Independent following the Second World War, starting with India in 1948.
Things had changed. Britain in 1914 was still an Empire, radically different to the Britain of say, twenty or 35 years later, 1934 or 1959. The entire world was different, more connected, informed, democratic. It’s unlikely, to say the least, that public opinion in Britain itself, (let alone opinion in the increasingly powerful United States) would have countenanced the coercive brutality of forcing Ireland to accept British rule against its will. But an Irish attack on Britain, “Stabbing Britain in the back”, during a World War, was a different matter.
The truth is that Pearse and the younger, more ‘poetic” IRB men belonged to a now deeply outdated, romantic, late 19th century form of pan-European nationalism that glorified blood sacrifice, while Tom Clark and older “dynamite” belonged to an earlier Fenian type bred in the mid-19th century in the radiclisizing shadow of the Famine (and folk memory of Cromwellian genocide) who simply hated Britain with every atom of their being and would have happily seen her fall to Imperial Germany.
They were both wrong. And in being so wrong, they did an incredible amount of damage to this country and its people, land, industry and long term well-being.
Apart from the War of Independence itself and all its attendant horrors (perpetrated by British forces, but provoked, deliberately, by the IRA) then factor in the Civil War that followed, the forces of the pro-Treaty government rounding up Irregulars, often for summary execution, the Four Courts in flames, all our historic records up in ashes, deep, bitter divisions scored into the nation, de Valera’s triumphant return to the Dail in 1928, his expedient “empty formula” phrase allowing him take the same oath he’d rejected in 1921, his excellent 1937 constitution (credit where it is due) but his disastrous, grandstanding, immature and cynical economic policies. Cynical because they seemed to profit natural Fiana Fail-supporting small farmers at the expense of FG supporting big or strong famers) and immature grandstanding because Dev’s economic war with Britain ultimately and inevitably damaged all Ireland, far more than it did or ever could damage the UK.
Paradoxically, his insane, emotionally satisfying, populist but ultimately self-defeating and economically-illiterate policies would help drive tens of thousands of poorer Irish people, (the very people he purported to champion) into economic exile, (ironically to Britain mostly)
Who was it that said patriotism is the first refuge of the scoundrel? (Or the grandiose deluded) Let’s throw the little streets upon the great, and then just wait to then see who suffers most. It won’t be the politicians playing the nationalist card to get elected.
Far from being a grand heroic narrative, its entirely possible that the physical force struggle for independence that ran from 1916 to 1922 was a waste, a catastrophic mistake and a tragedy of extraordinary, epic proportions hard to even contemplate today, let alone admit.
The partition of Ireland into North and South may well have come about either way, but the violence guaranteed it did.
Maybe Redmond was right all along. Maybe if the Rising had never happened, and the surviving WWI veterans had come back from the Trenches, Unionists and nationalist Irishmen really would have felt closer together.
The city centre would not have lain in ruins, the public buildings shattered, Cork would not have been burnt by drunken thugs, our historic records would still be intact, our society undivided, our public debts, nascent industry and economy in better shape, some of the mass emigration of the 1940s-1980s avoided, and some of the generations-long sadness of poverty, exile and waste might have ben abated.
We shall never know. But that should not stop us trying to think. Never be scared to think the unthinkable.
The forgotten victims in all this are, (quite literally) the silent majority, the majority of Irish nationalists who judged Britain the lesser of two evils and went and fought against Imperial Germany, in the knowledge they would come back, or rather should have come back, to a better and freer Ireland.
The problem is what followed meant “the rules’ or reality they left behind was changed behind their backs, a cruel twist of fate. The tiny few have written all the history books and can not bear, or can never afford to admit, that all the others might just have had a point.
Dublin Fusiliers, leaving the Royal Baracks, now Collins Baracks, marching off to war.
Their analysis was correct, about the lessor or two evils, and they were denied the second part only by the actions of a tiny few. Some Irish WWI veterans of course then joined the Independence struggle. Others felt confused, betrayed, alienated and isolated. I hate the idea of a hero like Tom Creen, unable to show his Polar medals in his pub in remote Anascaul, because these medals were struck by the navy, for fear of being ostracized or possibly worse by local Kerry republicans
But in larger centres, and of course notably Dublin, poppies and Remembrance day commemorations went strongly on to the 1930 and even 40s. Nor as the historian John Gibney has noted, can this be discounted as an exclusively Protestant phenomenon. Catholic WWI veterans (the majority of veterans) congregated in the Pro-Cathedral on Malborough Street, and the vast majority of Dublin crowds respected them, their sorrow and memories of friends, with a few nasty exceptions. I’m afraid I’m pretty hard on such people, disrespecting the memory of something they could not even begin to understand. (None of us can)
It was in fact Unionist bigotry and discrimination against Catholics in the Six Counties, then the Troubles that followed, that made Irish honouring of British forces in WWI emotionally difficult, and politically impossible.
True, the past is another country, they do things different there. That’s all true. But now it is time to re-evaluate, and to think again.
Doing so is part of our growing up and growing bigger. And it’s a debt we owe, to those proud, brave, Irish men from the past.
Post Script: The piece above, The Irish in World War One – Forgotten Heroes, was written two years ago, around the time of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, in the summer of 1914. I was clearly feeling a little agrieved about a number of things, and was deeply skepical about the mainstream nationalist narrartive i Ireland. Two years on, my views have evolved somewhat. I’ve decided however to leave the piece above exactly how it was written then. But if you’d like to see how my views have changed, please see here…