Time to stand up for Great War’s fighting Irish

Tuesday marks the 90th anniversary of WW1 and here historian and journalist, Ryle Dwyer, argues why it should mark the beginning of a new understanding and respect for the 200,000 Irishmen who fought and the 38,000 who died in one of the world’s most horrendous conflicts.

“THE war to end all wars,” which began in the autumn of 1914, was supposed to be over by Christmas of that year, but the reality is the world at large and Ireland itself is still suffering from its unfortunate effects.

The anniversary of its ending has usually been officially ignored in this country, even though many more Irish people fought in it than in the War of Independence.

About 200,000 Irishmen signed up, most voluntarily, in response to John Redmond’s call to fight for the rights of small nations.

In December 1915 Patrick Pearse wrote in the most moving terms of those who were fighting on the continent.

“Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives gladly given for love of country.”

Many remain unaware that over 35,000 Irishmen were killed.

When the war ended, the sacrifices of those people were largely forgotten and even denigrated. It was as if remembering them would somehow detract from the sacrifices of those who fought in the Easter Rebellion, or the War of Independence.

On the original Armistice Day there were great scenes of celebration throughout Ireland as good-humoured crowds thronged the principal streets, with different military bands staging impromptu marches.

Union Jacks, flying from business premises, added great colour to the occasion.

The celebrations continued the following day but as the day went on there were counter demonstrations by Sinn Féin supporters, who set fire to many Union Jacks. Some veterans were physically attacked on the streets of Dublin.

Michael Collins seemed to take a vicarious delight in writing about those attacks.

“As a result of various encounters there were 125 cases of wounded soldiers treated at Dublin hospitals that night,” he wrote to Austin Stack, then in jail.

“Before morning three soldiers and one officer had ceased to need any attention and one other died the following day. A policeman too was in a precarious condition up to a few days ago when I ceased to take any further interest in him. He was unlikely to recover.”

This was Collins at his least attractive.

While interned in 1916 at Frongoch, (the internment camp in Merionethshire, Wales, where in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising, German prisoners were moved and it was used for approximately 1,800 Irish prisoners) he had asked that those who had taken part in the Easter Rebellion should be judged by their motives.

“Let us be judged by what we attempted rather than what we achieved,” he wrote.

Yet he was unwilling to judge the soldiers who had fought in the First World War by the same standard. Thereafter each year a tiny clique of begrudgers — acting hypocritically in the name of Pearse — would block any proper commemoration of the Armistice in this country.

During a disturbance in South King’s Street an apprentice baker named Francis Jackson was arrested and taken into custody by Detective Sergeant Patrick Smith, who was the only arresting officer named in the press report.

Twenty months later Smith was the first of the officers of the Dublin Metropolitan Police that Collins had killed in the War of Independence.

During the celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 Taoiseach Seán Lemass said he, along with many others, had been guilty of questioning “the motives of those men who joined the new British armies formed at the outbreak of the war, but it must in their honour and in fairness to their memory be said that they were motivated by the highest purpose”.

Unfortunately, he stepped down as Taoiseach before the next Armistice Day. His successor was not ready to confront those who were blocking proper official representation at the services for the men who answered Redmond’s call.

The depths of obscenity were plumbed in 1987, when the Provisional IRA bombed the remembrance ceremony in Enniskillen on the Sunday before the anniversary.

While people might like to think this was just the action of a small band of psychotic gangsters parading under the banner of Irish nationalism, it had its roots in our own indifference over the years.

There was a poignant moment in the Seanad three days later when John Robb produced a poppy.

“Every year, like most families in Northern Ireland, I have worn the poppy as an emblem of remembrance,” he said. Out of respect for the Seanad he did not wear it in Leinster House, but he presented one to Leas-Cathaoirligh Charlie McDonald as “an emblem of peace”. It was reported that McDonald wore it. But even the obscenity of what happened at Enniskillen was not enough to still the squalid begrudgery of those who have, year after year, frustrated efforts to commemorate the sacrifices of family members.

On the 70th Armistice Day in 1988, for instance, Gay Byrne announced on his radio programme that he would be wearing a poppy that night on the Late Late Show. Gay’s father had fought in the war, along with six of his brothers.

All seven of the Byrne brothers managed to survive the conflict, though shortly afterwards one did succumb to the damage already done to his lungs in a gas attack. Gay’s decision prompted a flood of protests to RTÉ.

“I have to renege on my promise because I was phoned by people and by friends who said it’s going to cause dissension and rows and misunderstanding,” he told the audience that night.

“There’s enough dissension in this country today without causing more. I’m going to renege in the cause of peace.”

Ten years later, on the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, President Mary McAleese opened the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, Belgium, in the company Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert of the Belgians.

The park was the brainchild of Glenn Barr and Paddy Harte who wanted to promote peace in Ireland by commemorating the men and women from all of Ireland who lost their lives during the First World War.

This should be done, not in an effort to glorify that dreadful war, but as a reminder of the betrayal of the idealism of a generation and a recognition of the futility of war. It would also be a fitting expression of our own revulsion at what happened in Enniskillen.

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