Friday 24 May 2019

Kevin Myers: Irish lives lost in WWII probably exceed the death toll for all domestic political violence in 20th century


This Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, when we may choose to remember the Irish dead of the two world wars, or not. Whereas once Ireland shied in horror at any commemoration of these wars, they are now accepted as part of the Irish history of the 20th century.

So it stands to reason that the National Museum is part of the process of historical retrieval: for a museum's job is to revisit the past, independently of political context.

This Saturday, the Collins Barracks arm of the museum is hosting an open-day to enable people to discover their own connections with the Great War, and the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and women who served in it.

There is an exception to the programme: to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World World II, I will be presenting a paper on the Irish involvement in that war -- or rather, a talk about the Irish losses. Because we now know that some 7,000 Irish servicemen and women died in that war, roughly equally divided north and south, and maybe another thousand Irish civilians were killed in Luftwaffe bombings. This is more than were killed between 1916-1923 or 1966-96: indeed, Irish losses in World War II, including civilian casualties, probably exceed the death toll for all the domestic political violence in the entire 20th century.

This time last year, writing on the first Irish (and British) fatal casualty of the war, Pilot Officer Willie Murphy, from Mitchelstown, Co Cork, in September 1939, I reported that the sole survivor of the raid he led, Laurence Slattery of Tipperary, had after the war lived as a recluse above a shop in his home town of Thurles. I was told this in good faith. It is apparently not true. He returned to Ireland, got married and settled down. I hope he lived the rest of his life in peace.

That story is an allegory for how we get things wrong. Which is what we do, the whole time. The truth is a mist in a darkened room full of mirrors, in which the occasional flash of light might tell us a truth, or mislead us with a mirage. Thus my research into the Irish soldiers of the war. Systematic analysis of casualty figures, which is now possible on CD Rom, has revealed that the so-called "Irish" regiments of World War II were in fact no such thing.

For contrary to widespread belief, political unionism was a clear factor in the composition of "other ranks" in the three northern infantry battalions before 1939: the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

A study of casualties in those regiments in 1940 suggests that NO soldiers resident in what was then legally Eire had been enlisted in them. Now this could be explained by an oversupply of recruits from within an impoverished and hungry Northern Ireland: except this is not the case. For 28pc of the soldiers of those northern Irish regiments were English.

A few southern-born soldiers resident in the UK at the time of enlistment were serving in the Northern regiments. But the simple truth is that if you were from and lived in southern Ireland, you were clearly not welcome as a private soldier in the three northern infantry battalions. Yet, 281 southern-born Irish soldiers were good enough to be killed in other regiments of the British army by the end of 1940.

Matters changed after 1940, but just how they did is something I will be talking about on Saturday. Yet what is clear is that southerners thereafter were far more dispersed through the British army than they had been in World War I.

The Munster family name Power gives us a snapshot into the disparate nature of Eire service in British colours. In all, 11 Powers from Eire died in 10 British army regiments. Captain John Joseph Power (26), from Kilmallock, Co Limerick, was killed in action in Italy with the Wiltshire regiment in 1944. RAF Sergeant James Patrick Power, an air-gunner from Tramore died in a Japanese POW camp in China, in February 1945.

One Irish Patrick Power died in France in 1940 with the Bedfordshires, and another Patrick Power died with the North Lancashires in the Far East in 1941.

And now a tale of three John Walshes. John Patrick Walsh from Belfast was a gunner with the Glamorgan yeomanry. He was 22 when he was killed in September 1944, the son of Mary and John Walsh from Belfast.

Company Sergeant-Major John Walsh of the Highland Light Infantry, aged 36, was from south of the border. He was husband of Eileen Walsh, formerly O'Donoghue, and he was killed in action in Holland in 1944.

Sergeant John Walsh was also from Eire. He was an air dispatcher serving with the Army Service Corps and was killed at the Arnhem fiasco in September 1944.

Most of these minor insights do not form part of my talk on Saturday, which is just part of a day-long Remembrance weekend commemoration, and which is far more about the Great War than the Second.

Log on to for a full outline of the day, and I trust my fellow contributors and I will see you there.

Irish Independent

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