Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: History: A City In Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 by Padraig Yeates

Gill & Macmillan €24.99

Struggles: youngsters
celebrating the end of
the war with the Stars
and Stripes, the
acceptable face of the
Allied victory.
Struggles: youngsters celebrating the end of the war with the Stars and Stripes, the acceptable face of the Allied victory.

On July 26, 1914, the Dublin Battalion of the Irish Volunteers smuggled 1,400 guns into Howth. As the volunteers brought the arms back towards the city, British soldiers failed to disarm them and were jeered by crowds. The soldiers opened fire at Bachelor's Walk, killing three people and wounding 85.

The dead were Mary Duffy, a 56-year-old widow who had a son in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers; Patrick Quinn, a coal porter and father of six; and James Brennan, a 17-year-old messenger.

Dubliners mourned their deaths and turned out in great numbers for their funerals the following week.

As was apparent from this tragic incident, Dublin on the eve of World War One was a city divided; it was tense, full of drama and volatile, and over the course of the next four years it was to witness many more violent and emotive events, including the 1916 Rising.

By the end of the war in 1918, it was braced for the beginning of a new war, after Sinn Féin had triumphed in the general election of December that year and began the quest for international, and especially American, recognition and support of the demand for an Irish republic.

The victims of many of the violent events from 1914 to 1918 were ordinary Dubliners and in this absorbing, original and well-researched book, Pádraig Yeates does them a great service in keeping their sacrifices to the fore and reminding the reader of their divided loyalties; many, like the unfortunate Mary Duffy, had close ties with the British war effort and were hugely dependent on it for income.

This book is filled with the struggles of ordinary people living their ordinary lives during extraordinary political and economic upheaval. A powerful social history, it is a book that reminds us that for all the headline-grabbing events, putting bread on the table was still the most important priority for most.

The author's research of contemporary newspapers and private archives has resulted in a book that succeeds in offering a multitude of perspectives on the political, military and administrative concerns of an elite involved in governance, but also the personal, individual preoccupations with light, heat, fuel, food, housing and survival in the trenches of the Western Front.

As the author of the definitive history of the 1913 Lock-out, Yeates is well placed to continue the story after the end of that cruel dispute. There were 26,000 families living in Dublin tenements at the outset of the war, and Yeates emphasises that they were a motley crew with varied occupations, including labourers, charwomen, policemen and street traders. The city produced many soldiers for the British army; by the end of the war, 25,644 Dubliners had served.

This is unsurprising given that a labourer could expect to earn between 16 and 18 shillings for a 48-hour week while the weekly separation allowance rate for the wife of a British army recruit was 12 shillings and six pence.

The serving husband received one shilling a day, along with free board and lodging. If the couple had children the family was much better off, with separation rates rising to £1 a week for a wife and three children.

Economics is central to Yeates's study. His trawl through the archives of the Irish Independent and The Irish Times highlights not only their approach to reporting events on the Western Front -- sometimes they reported on war losses with "brutal clarity", and 19pc of Dublin men who enlisted in the British army were killed between 1914 and 1918 -- but also the tensions and uproar over profiteering, food shortages, the requisition of hay crops and increased taxes and inflation.

Undoubtedly, cost-of-living issues gnawed away at support for the war and a radical but small-circulation nationalist press also stoked anti-war feeling.

Yeates's achievement is to include a rich variety of different narratives and themes; there is much attention devoted to bad-tempered Dublin Corporation meetings and the problems of prostitution and drunkenness as well as a self-appointed Dublin Watch Committee, which was active in censoring what it regarded as morally unsuitable material during the beginning of cinema's great era of expansion.

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