Friday 20 September 2019

We must unlock these stories to learn about ourselves

The reasons Irishmen served in World War I are multifaceted and state remembrance has proved problematic

The Western front: Irish troops moving over the captured German 2nd line at Cambrai, France, where they took thousands of prisoners. Picture: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty
The Western front: Irish troops moving over the captured German 2nd line at Cambrai, France, where they took thousands of prisoners. Picture: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty
The Western front: Irish troops moving over the captured German 2nd line at Cambrai, France, where they took thousands of prisoners. Picture: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty

Diarmaid Ferriter

In December 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British Prime Minister David Cameron spent a few hours together in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, visiting war graves, laying wreaths and paying homage to the dead of World War I. It was the first joint visit by a Taoiseach and prime minister to honour the British and Irish men killed in that war as soldiers of the British army.

When he made the first official state visit of an Irish president to Britain in April 2014, President Michael Higgins also took the opportunity to underline the historic ties that bind the two countries as a result of the war by quoting Tom Kettle, the former Irish nationalist MP who died in the trenches as one of the best-known Irish victims of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Higgins suggested Kettle had died "an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European."

Such joint gestures and language mark a complete transformation in the attitude of the Irish State to the Irish men who fought in the British army during the war, a transformation clearly linked to the peace process from the 1990s onwards.

It is no coincidence that such recognition of a shared heritage was initially given much momentum by the opening of the Messine Peace Tower in Belgium in 1998, the same year the Belfast Agreement was signed in an attempt to bring an end to three decades of the Troubles in the North. The Messine tower was built to honour the memory of soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division and 16th Irish Division that fought alongside each other in the British army during the battle of Messine in June 1917.

Just over 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army during the war; one quarter of them were already serving before the war and the rest joined, voluntarily, after the outbreak of war. Although there is no definitive figure for the Irish war dead, it was in the region of 30,000. How to characterise what they died for has always been problematic; Kenny maintained during his trip to Flanders that they "died for their beliefs"; Cameron suggested during the same trip that they "gave their lives in the cause of freedom".

At best, such interpretations are partial, and President Higgins's description of Kettle is also open to debate. There were a variety of different reasons why Irishmen volunteered for service in the British army during the war. John Redmond, as leader of the Irish constitutional nationalists, encouraged Irish men to enlist, and insisted in 1914 that the war was "undertaken in defence of the highest principles of religion and morality". There is no doubt this was widely believed at the time; Kettle explained why he served: "It is a confession to make and I make it. I care for liberty more than I care for Ireland."

Undoubtedly, others were motivated by loyalty to empire or loyalty to Irish nationalism, having been encouraged to enlist by their political leaders either to strengthen the case for remaining within the empire or to be rewarded for their service through the implementation of Home Rule. Many Irish nationalists of that era did not feel their political affiliation was incompatible with service in the British army.

Catholic nationalists from Belfast joined in significant numbers and fought alongside their unionist counterparts and, in April 1915, in response to the question of why they were joining the British army, three Irish brothers from southern Ireland declared: "Because Mr Redmond said that this was as much Ireland's fight as England's and we want to fight for Ireland". For others, family and community traditions of military service were relevant, as was peer example and pressure.

But there were other reasons for enlistment. Tom Barry, later famed as an IRA leader in the War of Independence, volunteered "for no other reason that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man". The outbreak of war also occurred in the aftermath of the defeat of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) after the 1913 Lockout.

For those with no jobs, or poorly-paid jobs, British army service held certain monetary attractions unavailable at home. Labourers in Dublin if they could find work, for example, were paid 17 shillings for a 48-hour week in 1914, but a private or corporal in the British army who had a wife and three children was guaranteed a weekly separation allowance of 23 shillings on top of pay.

Although the ITGWU was vocally opposed to the war, more than 2,500 ITGWU members joined the British army. Overall, 25,000 Dubliners served during the war and 19pc of them were killed. Others were persuaded by the plight of "little Catholic Belgium" and contemporary recruitment posters made much of this, asking Irishmen to "Remember Belgium: Your place is on the Battlefield and no true Irishman should be sought or found elsewhere".

Due to the changed political circumstances in Ireland during the war as a result of the 1916 Rising, the rise of Sinn Fein as a national movement and the implacable opposition in 1918 to the threat of conscription to the army being imposed on Ireland, which prompted a successful opposition coalition of republicans, the labour movement, constitutional nationalists and the Catholic Church, many former soldiers returned to an unsympathetic Ireland at the end of the war. Although some were provided with housing, most did not get the "homes fit for heroes" promised by the British government and many complained of discrimination when it came to employment.

The IRA killed 200 ex-servicemen during the War of Independence; and although not all were killed because of their British army service, some undoubtedly were; the other side of that coin is that some ex-servicemen became very committed and effective IRA men.

There was a degree of silence and ambivalence about the Irish links to the war to the extent that by 1967, historian FX Martin referred to a deliberate "historical amnesia", in direct contrast to the way in which Ulster veterans were heralded for their heroics in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 when they suffered more than 5,000 casualties on a single day, with 3,000 killed.

Nationalists who participated in the Somme were written out of the narrative, but unionists continually used its memory to emphasise their loyalty, press their political claims and defend the creation and continued existence of the state of Northern Ireland.

Taoiseach Sean Lemass made a courageous intervention in 1965 by referring to those Irish soldiers who had died in the war as having died "as honourably" as those who had died in the Irish republican campaign from 1916 to 1923, but there was still a tendency to think negatively about their motives.

However, the notion of amnesia in the south of Ireland about the war can also be exaggerated. Thousands gathered at College Green in Dublin in the early 1920s on remembrance days – 150,000 poppies were sold in Dublin in 1923 – and there are war memorials in towns and villages all over Ireland. Nonetheless, there is no doubt the idea of official state remembrance was problematic.

A war memorial had originally been proposed for Merrion Square, but this was so close to Government Buildings that Kevin O'Higgins, Justice Minister in the 1920s, felt it would send "the wrong signal about the origins of this State". He said this "in no spirit of hostility to ex-servicemen" which was true; his brother, Michael, had been killed in the war and O'Higgins went on to represent the government in London at the war cenotaph in 1926.

It was decided to situate the memorial at the less central location of Islandbridge, where for decades, the British Legion held its armistice day ceremony, but it remained physically neglected and isolated until the 1990s when the peace process gave it a new profile and greater political importance. Even in the 1980s, Irish governments were reluctant to embrace the annual Remembrance Day service at St Patrick's Cathedral; President Patrick Hillery received an invitation from the British Legion to attend and was willing to go, but Taoiseach Charles Haughey refused permission. Hillery's successor, Mary Robinson, however, did attend, as did her successors.

World War I was one of the decisive factors in the shaping of modern Ireland and its politics. It made partition more likely, provided the pretext for the 1916 Rising – the defining event of modern Irish republicanism – and had a vital importance in the life and death of ordinary Irish people.

This year's centenary of its outbreak provides an opportunity for a more nuanced appreciation of the forces and pressures underpinning loyalty and identity in Ireland 100 years ago and for stories, sources and memories that were locked away for decades to be opened up and discussed.

But remembrance of the war should not be turned into glorification of what was a horrendous conflict, obscene in its scale and execution and dependent on millions of recruits and conscripts who were brutally sacrificed.

  • Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.


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