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…
38 thoughts on “The Irish in World War One – Forgotten heroes.”
Reblogged this on J.D. Gallagher and commented:
A great article on the involvement of Irish in World War One.
Thanks very much J.D. really appreciate that, on both counts. Was quite a big deal for me to write this. I take it all a bit personally perhaps. Great to have some support anyway. -Arran.
No problem. I loved it.
Eh…I’ve made speculative observations along the lines you suggest but have not done the research you are mentioning. You might want to amend that.
Duly amended John. Sent you an email too.
You sum up the modern mood very well. The way we can probably greater understand and even appreciate the Irish who fought on both sides now than we did thirty years ago. I am not sure though that I agree that we would have arrived at “independence” anyway in time without a rising. There was no way anyone could have seen the future and judging by the past Britain rarely walked away, not to mention the number of Unionists in the country who would have been extremely unhappy.
A well thought out post on an historically less than popular topic. I enjoyed it.
Thank you very much Tric for your generous, insightful and thoughtful comments.
Vis a vis our eventual independence, you are entirely right to say that nobody can or could see the future and also that Britain, still definitely an Empire in 1914, with an Imperial mindset, rarely walked away. Agreed, on both counts.
I suppose my contention is firstly, that although we could not achieve full independence in the 1910s or 1920s via constitutional means, we could achieve a large, and worthwhile degree of it, and indeed Had in fact (Via Redmond and the IP) just attained it,
Albeit that we or rather our great grand parents, never got to enjoy, measure or assesses this long-sought political gain,
– firstly because of the war, delaying the implementation of the At, , then the E Rising, then the stupid, violent British response, then of course the Conscription crisis, all of which radicalized Ireland.
The violence and agony that followed, May not i would argue, ultimately delivered substantially more autonomy in real terms.
-Ireland still not a Republic,
-TDs still took oath of fidelity to King,
-ports (and therefore foreign policy?) not fully our own,
– and of course worst of all, Partition still a fact, now loaded with considerably more rancour and bitterness.
I take it you’d agree that Britain would not still have denied Ireland freedom in say, the 1940s or 50s, while “giving” the same to for example, India or Ghana?
So, it would have come eventually?
So what i am asking then is, where was the real gain in fighting in the early ’20s?
And what was the real price?
And finally, have we neglected to honour our WWI soldiers because they carry the freight of a larger struggle?
Or perhaps, i don’t know, also because they espoused at the time a different analysis of Ireland’s real needs and best interests? And worst of all, might they, could they possibly have been correct in their analysis?
With the Land Reform acts in full swing and Penal laws a very, very distant memory, equality and opportunity foe the majority of Irish people was actually getting better i the years leading up to the war. Was there a major redistribution of wealth? well i the cities no, but the land acts must have made a difference and I suspect we may have been better off economically as a semi-autonomous part of the UK for a further 15-20 years. I don’t know, I’m neither professional historian, nor an economist, so i will bow to greater authorities on that last issue.
What would we really have suffered by waiting a further 20 years? 20 year by the way in which we would have already had a large degree of self determination, via Home Rule.
We shall never know.
Very well thought out analysis, Arran. I agree with you about admiring the heroes of the Rising, as I also admire Emmett and Roger Casement. They might have done the wrong things for the right reasons, but at least they did stand up for what they believed in.
Although I was brought up in England, it was with family who had been brought up in Ireland. I remember the animated ‘discussions’ at every family gathering, the pro-Collins, the pro-Dev factions, but the wars were never mentioned. I think it was extremely difficult for the Irish living in England to steer a course between their gut feelings about the home country and the survival tactics needed in often hostile surroundings. In fact, the arguements would be about politics, not myth.
The Famine, the Rising, the Penal Laws were tacitly ignored and we had to get our dose of ‘putting the record straight’ at school. Apart from mutterings about Black Cromwell and my dad almost getting hemself run out of twon with his bit of fun suggesting Oliver as a name for one of us kids, the past misfortunes were never spoken about.
This guilt about the past and the ambivalent attitude towards England has made the Irish perspective on their own history a difficult one.
That’s all very interesting Jane. The experience of the Irish diaspora is obviously very complex, riven with mixed feelings and emotions, sensitivities and divided loyalties. It\s a complex thing, being both English and Irish at once, belonging to both and perhaps (I don’t know) not fully to either, a richness and complexity of being, yet a sense of otherness. All very interesting.
In Ireland itself, back in the home country as it were, economic migrants were almost forgotten, by official Ireland I mean, although not of course by family and friends. There would have been a time when remittances sent home (from Manchester, London, Glasgow, Birmingham) would have been a vital lifeline in small Irish towns. Yet, for some Irish men who went over to work in the UK from the middle of the 19th century to 3/4s way through the last century, I’d say that exile was a lonely place.
In the UK it was also complicated by mutual animosity and suspicion, even some level of bigotry, which was perhaps not as bad for Irish migrants in, say, the US or say, Australia,
For married men even in the UK, it was a bit different, a better thing , that wold have been their anchor, strength, identity and community, like your family. But there were many Irish men who worked as labourers in England and lived out their whole lives on building sites, hostels and the pub.
Nor am I sure that the contemporary Ireland of the time offered anything much better.
But our narrow frame of reference over here ( economic, history, identity, memory (or selective memory)) is part of what i am trying to question above. Thank you for responding so thoughtfully, and for re-blogging.
One of the saddest things I remember from childhood holidays was when we’d get the boat from Liverpool and there’d be an endless queue of shabby-looking men going home, maybe just for a few days or because they were between jobs and they couldn’t stand it any longer. Even as a child I think I understood that what they were going back to wasn’t what I would call home.
Yes, I think this Ireland, for a lot of the first 50-odd years of its Independence, was quite a sad, dysfunctional sort of place, for the majority of its citizens. Complex obviously. Endless story. I’d liked to think we’ve turned a corner more recently. We shall see.
I did hear a few years ago that the government was inviting those sad single emigrant workers to come home. The numbers still living in bedsits in London, too poor to move and with no family left in Ireland to look after them were probably pretty small by then, but they were going to be offered housing and a state pension. Don’t know what came of that plan. I like to think it happened.
Reblogged this on Jane Dougherty Writes and commented:
A very informative analysis of the contradictions and difficult bits in modern Irish history.
A really well thought out and informative narrative. It’s a shame that the part played by Irish troops in WW1 is largely forgotten in Ireland itself who lost many a son during those years. The Irish sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed by the ordinary folk of Britain at the time and doesn’t now in the Poppy Ceremonies. It’s truly time that those brave men were celebrated in their own home and their accomplishments recognised by medals awarded be shouted from the rooftops.
England’s actions in Ireland were despicable, but were what was expected of that time, especially with such a bitter war on the home front. Now is a perfect time for those old animosities to be cast aside and Ireland’s fight against the evils of WW1 celebrated as brave confederates then and good neighbours now.
I speak as a Welshman who remembers a history with England not dissimilar to the Irish struggle.
Thank you very much David for your generous and thoughtful response. It’s much appreciated.
Reblogged this on Dog Bones From Our Frynds and commented:
Anyone who served or is serving in any country’s military should be respected. I just wish that we didn’t need military forces throughout the world. It would be so nice to Give Peace a Chance!
Three cheers for that. But we shall not hold our breath. I dread to think what is happening to ordinary people in, say Syria, right now. And lets not fool ourselves, neither side there are saints. But whoever the perpetrators, on both sides, it’s always the so-called “ordinary people’ who suffer most. Many thanks for the Re-Blog. And thank you for your comments.
[…] If you want to read a possibly contentious view of Irish attitudes to her WWI veterans in the decades following Irish Independence, go here. […]
Very interesting piece Arran, a couple of quick points:
I think you’ve a commendably romantic view of the British and the worth of their word circa WWI. Home Rule might have been promised but it was a long way form becoming a reality. And the British made all sorts of promises to parts of its Empire that were casually reneged on subsequently, as the continued chaos in the Middle East testifies.
And second, (partial) independence at some point in the 20thC might look inevitable to us from the vantage point of 2014 but it would have seemed anything but a hundred years ago.
Good piece though!
thank you for reading what is after all quite a long piece, and for your comments and observations.
You commend me on my, well, on my “commendably romantic view of the British and the worth of their word circa WWI.” then go on to say that “Home Rule might have been promised but it was a long way form becoming a reality.”
On the contrary, as outlined in the piece above, Home Rule was passed into law early in 1914.
We all know what happened next, before it could implemented after WWI, it was massively overtaken by other events, notably the Easter Rising, But it WAS by that stage already law, part of the constitutional fabric of the UK, not some vague promise, as you would have it.
In other words, far from being “reneged on”, it was as i say overtaken by far more radical events again: the Rising, then the Conscription Crisis, than, and because of the 2 previous factors, a massive majority for SF in the post-war 1918 elections, who were of course abstentionists, then ultimately of course came the War of Independence. All of which made the Home Rule Act obsolete. That much seems obvious and is generally agreed by most parties.
In other words, the reason the Home Rule Act was never implemented had nothing to do with it being some sort of vague promise !
On a seperate but related note: You also say (partial) independence at some point in the 20thC may look inevitable to us, but .100 years ago would have seemed anything but. ”
On the contrary, as i say above “Partial independence” was “a done deal”, already law, before being overtaken by the events noted above, then ultimately overtaken by other forms of Independence achieved by difference means. (Revolutionary rather than Constitutional)
So really, either way, whether you take the reality of what transpired as it actually unfolded, or instead take any one of various other scenarios (some outlined in the main piece above) yes, partial Independence both “looked” and indeed turned out to be… inevitable.
Finally, you mention “by mid-20th century” You’ll be aware that India, Ghana, and dozen of other countries achieved Independence from the immediate post WWII era, through the 1950s and into the 60s.
In the wake of Nazi aggression in WWII it became morally and politically uneatable for Britain to maintain a large Empire against the wishes of the inhabitants of those countries. The anti-imperial stance of the new superpower, the United States, now come into play, (“ant-Imperial” at least regarding the older, now relatively declining, European powers!) Ireland, had she chosen, would have also become full Republic in that post WWII period, if not previously. But as outlined above, we would have already had had Home Rule, long before.
thanks again for your comments, and very best regards
Epic post Arran. I’ve learnt more about that period of Irish history in 15 minutes than I knew before. Certainly I’m aware that the received history of the time has been revisited by many in recent years and some popular myths debunked, and your examination and interpretation of the facts is enlightening.
Two bits of apparent ‘trivia’ that I’d not heard before speak volumes – the matter of the soldiers’ pay not being able to be processed via the GPO would have enraged many; and the matter of Tom Crean’s medals is just exasperating and futile. (A fine village is Annascaul by the way – I remember an epic pub crawl around there many moons ago 🙂 )
Ah Roy, thank you very much for your kind and encouraging comments. But really I am just jealous you went on a pub crawl around Annascaul!
Did you go to the South Pole Inn? (Tom Creen’s own, old pub?)
I’ve never been, always, wanted to go, well for years now. He was a total mega hero, as far as I’m concerned.
Exactly the same conclusions I came to, after five years of immersion in the detailed study of Irish history and culture. Looking forward to learning more.
Many, many thanks Christine.
Reblogged this on Christine Plouvier, Novelist and commented:
I was a “tabula rasa” when I put my hand to the plough of research that over the next five years yielded the harvest of my first novel, which sowed the seeds for my second, going back through a century of Irish history and culture. And as I left ignorance behind, these are the exact conclusions that I came to. Thank you, Arran Henderson, for this excellent introduction to the truth that must be told.
I missed this one earlier. Great post!
Thanks Murray, many thanks.
A very interesting and thought provoking post.
One of the less honourable aspects of English (not British) history. Let us hope that in this time of remembrance, differences can be put aside and the sacrifice made by families during WW. I. can be remembered without prejudice.
Great article and thanks very much for it, It is indeed very informative. I had 6 relations who fought in this war, 3 kia 2 wounded badly, of the 2 wounded 1 was a pow for 3 years. My grandfather who was a pow for 3 years went away to that war as a veteran of the south african campaign, he was repatriated in 1918 through switzerland and came home as a total michael collins supporter which was strange as he had loved the idea of ireland in the empire beforehand, There has been an attitude of “Political amnesia” from the major parties here in Ireland with regard to veterans of both WW1 and WW2 and until recently to those from the republic of ireland who died in these conflicts. My fathers uncle was killed at Passchendaele and had joined because he believed in Redmond and in truth i can forgive him for his naivety. its only in the past few years that some politicians have jumped on the bandwagon and are saying ” we must remember”. As an ex soldier myself i have no issues with remembering tho who served and fell or just served, i have no issues with poppy day etc, I served in the same barracks that was HQ of the royal Irish Regiment until 1922 and i am proud that my dad and my garndfather served there also. It is not that long ago in truth that i saw people throw rubbish at or spat at a local www1 monument in south tipperary, Once again many thanks for the article and forgive my ranting please.
Dear Anthony/Mr Cosgrave,
thank you very much for your very kind, supportive and informative response to my piece above. I am very very pleased, and even relived you enjoyed the piece and found it useful, and i just wanted to thank you personally for responding with the extraordinary and fascinating story about the fortunes of your grandfather and other relations. Were all the other 5 combatants his brothers? Or did men from both sides of your family fight in the great war? All from South Tipp? If so, there must have been a very convincing recruiting Sargent working the local area! By any standards, that is a lot of men from one family to serve in that terrible war. To lose 3 of them kia was, obviously, an appalling tragedy. As i am sure you know, the famous Tom Kettle (Irish party MP, barrister and activist) died at Passchendaele. He was therefore probably in the same regiment as your great uncle. I wonder they were in the same company, very possibly.
I think you and i may differ slightly on just one issue. You say you can forgive that man, your great uncle, his naivety, but I am not so sure that, judged by the situation and the values of their own time, that these brave men actually were naive. Redmond’s position in 1914-1915 would not have looked then as it perhaps appears now. Indeed many Irish men believed that, in fighting for Britain they were A- defending small neutral catholic country from appalling German aggression – which was entirely true by the way, not mere propaganda (although to be sure, there was plenty of that too) They also believed B- they were improving Redmond’s and thus Ireland’s negotiation position, vis a vis the details of Home Rule in any post-war settlement. Again, i don’t think this was naive in the political reality of 1914/15. In every other respect, i think we are of a mind. People who spit at war memorials, (1914-18 ones, or any other kind) badly need some eduction, manners and good sense.
I strongly dislike the lack of respect shown to Irishmen who served i the British forces. In fact, i resent it. My great uncle was torpedoed twice in one night, on North Atlantic convoys. My own great grandfather, like your grandfather, was a veteran of the Boer war i South Africa, and although he also survived, he was shell shocked and traumatized by it. Every time i hear people calling the Boer War Dublin Fusiliers arch, into St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, “Traitors Arch” – my blood starts to boil!
My thanks again, and very warm respects.
Arran, To answer your questions 5 of my relations on my mothers side, One was on my dads side, Her father as i said was a pow and his brother was kia at Cambrai in 1917, she had 3 on her Mums side that fought with the munsters at gallipoli, one of whom was kia and one badly wounded. With regard to the man Jeremiah 2nd Bn Royal Dubs who fell at passchedaele this is a small extract from what i found out online.
“The World War I experiences of Jack Hayes (1888-1971) as recounted by his son, Pat Hayes. Additional recollections and supporting evidence were provided by Jack’s grandsons, Steffan and Illtyd ap Dafydd.
John Hayes, known as Jack, was born on 25 April 1888, in Kilmore, Ireland. His father was a boot maker. Jack left school at age 12 to work as a farm labourer on the Saltee Islands, some miles off the coast of Kilmore Quay.
In 1908, aged 20, Jack travelled to Maesteg, Wales, to attend his sister’s funeral. To pay for the funeral, Jack settled in Maesteg, where he found work in the mines. He joined a growing community of people from Kilmore and other areas of County Wexford who were working in and around the collieries of Maesteg.
Although I was under the impression that Jack, my father, enlisted in Cork, Ireland, according to his War Office record (HAM/45443/2554), he enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (#47975) in Maesteg on 31 December 1914, aged 25. He signed up along with his friends John Barry, of Kilmore, and Jeremiah Cosgrave, of Galbally, County Wexford. They probably enlisted in Maesteg on the understanding that they would be allowed to join the Dublin Fusiliers, and that the Army would pay their travelling expenses”.
Jeremiah was KIA august 16th 1917, He had been transferred from the 1st Battalion RDF to the 2nd Battalion a week before he was killed, I have been twice to Tyne Cot and looked at his name on the memorial wall.
Enlistment by my family on my mums side seems to be that they were for the most part professional soldiers as 3 out of the 5 had served in the boer war also. As Clonmel was a garrison town from 1650 onwards to 2012 a lot of soldiers served from the hinterland from the days of the empire to its closure.
Thank you very much for that very enlightening and fascinating additional information, it is much appreciated. It’s very interesting that your father was able to enlist in Maesteg but to join up with the DFs. My own great grandfather, who was Irish, but was in England during the Boer war, signed up in Norfolk and served in an English, rather than an Irish, regiment during the war in South Africa, before returning to Dublin afterwards, (badly scared by the experience, as family memory has it.)
It is a good point that Clonmel was a garrison town and so as you say, its hinterland provided countless Irish soldiers for the British army for generations.
Thank you very much again Anthony. A lot of people responded very positively to this article above, which was very heartening, but it’s particularly interesting to hear from someone from a family with such a strong, direct connection to the Great war. I’m much obliged to you.
Super article. Brilliantly enunciating my own long held views on 1916 and the narrow narrative that was fed to me during my secondary education. I attended CBS Westland Row where there was what can only be described as a shrine to the Pearse Brothers on the top floor. Fortunately the school also instilled in me a love of learning which has fed my subsequent wider reading of history, allowing me to see past the painted screen behind which Republican Ireland wished to hide the past. I was also fortunate enough to be able to hear from my grand-uncle, a teenager at the time, of the reaction of the Dublin poulace to the rebels and to the arriving British soldiers. Not the reaction that the history books of the time presented.
To me the greatest Irish statesmen were O’Connell, Butt, Parnell and Redmond. Your description of Pearse and the other “‘poetic” IRB” men’s romantic vision of nationalism is an interesting point, and one well taken, but I have always held that they were unrepresentative and unintentionally or not, created the seeds of much of the trouble that affliced Ireland for the large part of the 20th century.
Mike, I feel quite honoured to have received your personally informed reaction to my article above. Your varied interesting points raise many issues, both explicit and implict. For example the role of the CBS (schools) is unique i think, in both positive and negative ways, in both the creation of our state, and the Nationalist, reverential tone of its self-identification.
I wonder have you happened upon another article of mine on this same blog, on the beautifully hand-painted chapel in Dun Laoghaire? It’s the last surviving part of the old Dominican convent there The young Irish men it honours and commemorates were all victims of WWI, and all alumini of the local CBS school. But when the Belgium town where…
Oh, I wont repeat the story here, its better told in that post, and you may well know the story anyway.
But it does illustrate another example of the same excellent point you make above. That is to say about the exclusivity and narrowness of the history we’ve all been taught.
As for your last point, I have mixed feelings about the 1916 rebels and the republican leaders of the revolutionary period generally. On one hand, I can’t help admire their vision, sense of purpose and physical courage, but on the other hand, I deplore their timing, their impatience and their methods.
I personally, am convinced that we would have achieved Home Rule soon after WWI, and then full, total independence by, say 1947-48. And without Irishmen killing Irishmen, on Irish soil, and the legacy and bitterness, waste and destruction, which is, lets face it, what we got.
In a word, I agree on the whole with your assessments.
My thanks, and my respects, – AQH.
[…] in WWI and why it was disgracefully ignored (or worse) for so long, you might be interested in this piece, although be warned, it’s not for everyone. If on the other hand, you’d prefer to join […]
I am struggling to write an article on the Irish and Messines ( the battle of the Mines) next week 100 years ago and I found your article very inspiring. The parallels with the history of my own country are amazing. One thing intrigues me: you are convinced that a majority of the Irish serving during WWI were catholics, The impression I did get get from my readings was that most were protestants, but I do not seem to be able to find reliable information on that. Can you give me more information on this. Thanks. Jan Ouvry
Hi Jan, just to be clear, what I say above is that a large majority of the *Irish Volunteer* movement as it stood in 1914 was prepared to follow Redmond’s entreaty to fight alongside Britain in WWI. It is also true that nearly all of those Irish Volunteers, (well over 100,000 at that time) were Irish, nationalist Catholics. However, please note there was another equivalent group in the North and North-East, called the *Ulster Volunteers*. They were around the same size, but were largely (majority) Protestant and Unionist. They also (mostly) went off to fight for Britain, as you would expect. But the key difference here is the perception in the 100 years since WWI, the perception you yourself say you shared, that it was mostly Irish, predominantly protestants Unionist, rather than predominantly-Catholics Nationalists, who fought on the British/Allied side in WWI. The reality however is that they both fought, and in roughly (I believe) equal numbers. (you will need to check all these figures yourself) The key reason for that difference in perception even since, is that Ulster Protestants have naturally emphasized their actions and sacrifice i WWI, (notably at the Somme, where loses were horrific) At the same time, and in sharp contrast Irish Catholics have done exactly the opposite: they have downplayed or ignored their choices and actions, ignored the fact of Catholic Nationalist Irish who fought in WWI. Why? Because of what happened here during the war (the Easter 1916 Rising) and immediately after WWI (the War of Independence) During that period the Nationalist Irish were fighting Britain. Obviously, in an atmosphere of anti-British Irish nationalism, where the British are the enemy and the “bad guys” nobody wants to hear your uncle’s war stories from the western front. So nobody talked about it, until very (very) recently.
I hope that helps. I can not help you further with any specific or precise figures I’m afraid. if you are researching the story in real depth and looking for precise and expert commentary then may i point you to the work of Professor John Horne, recently of Trinity College Dublin? He is probably the leading authority on the Irish in WWI. You could not have a better guide and he will have drilled down deep into the fcts and figurs of the period. In a more general way the work of Dermaid Ferriter, and Roy Foster (both eminent Irish historians) may also be useful. But focus on Prof John Horne if your focus is Irish in WWI. I wish you all the best with your work. with kind regards- Arran Henderson.