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Eoghan Harris: We did forget but now we must put old ghosts to rest


They'll call me a coward if I return, but a hero if I fall.

Private Patrick McGill, of the London Rifles and Glenties, Co Donegal, pithily summed up the cheerless choice of fates faced by the 500,000 Irishmen who took part in the First World War: to die by shot, shell, gas and disease, or survive and come home to hide out and keep the head down.

McGill's mordant lines also provide the title for Neil Richardson's remarkable new book, A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall, (O'Brien Press), a moving collection of stories about Irishmen who fought in that war, backed up by photos, diaries and documents that bring us closer to these men than any book I have read before.

When I call this book remarkable, I do not refer to its scrupulous search for the stories of men who went missing on the margins of memory, or its extraordinary empathy with a generation that is gone.

I am talking about how it handles the misleading myths that have grown up around the motives of the 200,000 Irishmen who went to war.

Sinn Fein propagandists made up many of these myths. But in recent years, as Richardson reveals in his insightful introduction, republican relatives have concocted their own myths about their ancestors' motives, forcing their grandfathers to retrospectively serve under false colours which suit the Sinn Fein story.

First, let's set the scene. The Irish State awarded 62,868 medals for service in the War of Independence. But this figure is nothing beside the numbers of those Irish who fought in the First World War: 200,000 from the island of Ireland; 300,000 Irish emigrants; a total of 500,000 Irish soldiers.

Richardson reaches for a contemporary comparison to bring home the horror of the first day of the battle of the Somme, when 20,000 died and 40,000 were wounded.

"Can you imagine if Croke Park, packed to capacity, was blown up, with one-quarter killed outright and the rest severely injured? Now imagine it happening, perhaps two or three times a year, over and over and over. . ." But the survivors suffered an equally deadly fate.

"Men died in their thousands, men were blown apart in their thousands, and, in Ireland, men were forgotten in their thousands." The question hangs there: how could a civilised country forget the sufferings of tens of thousands of fathers, brothers, friends and neighbours?

The traditional answer is that 1916 changed everything. But this cannot account for the anger aimed at these hapless survivors. After all, if they had been duped, they deserved sympathy. As Richardson asks: "Why the bitterness? Why the hatred?"

My answer comes from my memories of growing up in Cork in the Fifties, when First World War veterans still crossed Cork city on crutches and restless Republicans still roamed the streets on Remembrance day, tearing poppies from the coats of middle-aged men, and it is a simple answer: Sinn Fein deliberately demonised the survivors and drove them from collective memory.

Growing up I recall three successive positions on these old soldiers. First: my grandfather's grim IRA generation told us the survivors were dupes at best, traitors and spies at worst. But at some level they did not believe their own rhetoric. After all, they too had grown up in British Cork and knew that they too might easily have ended up in France.

Second, my father's generation, which was replacing the Old IRA in the Fifties was actually more primitive in its politics. As teenage tearaways they had roamed the streets in the lawless days of Civil War and lacked their father's fairly benign memories of the complexities of Redmondite Cork. As adults they were political louts, like Hitler's Brownshirts, who would stupidly shout "West Brits" at working class veterans who lived in the lanes off Shandon Street.

Third, by the Sixties, these nationalist thicks had been replaced by an equally simplistic generation of "republican socialists" who saw the old soldiers as simply economic victims, cannon fodder for the capitalist-imperialist aims of the British and German empires, which were dismissed as equally bad -- which of course they were not. Today, the position of the Irish people on Irish soldiers in the First World War is a mild mixture of these three positions, plus a healthy dollop of republican pluralism, courtesy of the peace process.

By and large most people believe the participants were either victims or proto-Republicans who were really fighting for Home Rule and were badly betrayed.

All four positions are patronising and hampered by historical hindsight. To take one example: far from these young men being foolish cannon fodder who did not realise the risks they were running, Richardson reveals they actually applied in increasing numbers after the appalling casualty lists were published.

The fact is that the 200,000 Irishmen who went to fight did so for 200,000 reasons -- but mostly because they wanted to.

The chief witness here is the commander of the West Cork Flying Column, Tom Barry himself: "I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man."

From the beginning, Sinn Fein propagandists began to bury these complex motives. And to add insult to injury, as the old soldiers began to die off, their republican sons and daughters started to make up myths about why their fathers went to France, portraying them as dupes or victims, so as to fit into the Sinn Fein version.

Richardson's research sometimes brought him face to face with what I used to call the "Poor Paddy" myths which were common among republican relatives of First World War soldiers in Cork.

The two main ones were: (a) "Poor Paddy was an underage soldier" -- when in fact he had joined up as an adult: (b) "Poor Paddy was conscripted" -- when, of course, conscription was never introduced. But Richardson adds a third that is totally new to me -- the myth that "Poor Paddy" died while fighting in the Irish Army!

Richardson dryly notes that whenever he delicately pointed out that since the Irish Army did not exist their relative must have died in an Irish regiment of the British army "the mood of the conversation quickly changed".

Given Sinn Fein's sneers at old soldiers, daubing of memorials, and paranoia about wearing the poppy, its not too surprising that republican relatives made up ridiculous stories about their grandfathers' motives in going to war. But it's still shameful. Although I reject my grandfather's IRA politics, they are his, not mine, and I would not dream of distorting them to suit a revisionist agenda.

Like the Chilean engineers, Neil Richardson's book has bored a rescue shaft. It's time we drew up the gallant ghosts of our grandfathers who have been buried for far too long in the Sinn Fein mine of mendacity and myth.

It's time we gave our grandfathers back their free will, accepted their actions, and stopped seeking retrospective pardons on their behalf from Sinn Fein -- or any other gang of green-shirted Gauleiters.

Eoghan Harris

Sunday Independent