The truth about Ireland’s First World War soldiers

British ex-servicemen would have been enthusiastic participants in next year’s commemoration of the 1916 Rising, writes Paul Taylor

NEXT year, we commemorate the centenary of perhaps the definitive episode in Irish history, the Easter Rising.

The 13 rebels executed by the British after the Rising are remembered — the thousands who died whilst serving in the British army were for many years forgotten in a sort of national amnesia.

Republican ideology had no room for Irishmen fighting under the British flag. With the peace process, they were remembered, but as the victims of intimidation for service to the British Crown, marginalised in Irish society.

New sources paint a different picture of their experiences in the interwar years. It would be a mistake to view them as British loyalists, out of step with the Irish population in volunteering at the outset of the First World War.

Catholic soldiers marched off with the support of nationalist leaders, the Church, and their communities. When the Royal Munster Fusiliers left in August 1914 enthusiastic crowds sang ‘Rule Britannia’.

Many returned home disillusioned at what they saw as the failure of the British government to make good its promise of Home Rule. The Irish Nationalists Veterans’ Association refused to take part in parades organised to celebrate the end of the war. For some, disillusionment produced a more extreme response as they joined the IRA.

Patrick Garvey, an IRA officer from Tralee, Co Kerry, wrote that many Irish Volunteers who had joined the British army had, after the war, trained the IRA in the use of arms.

Best known was perhaps Tom Barry, who became one of its most successful commanders in West Cork. Others joined or provided information to the British forces. This was the reason they were executed, not simply that they had served in the First World War.

Tom Barry
Tom Barry

William O’Sullivan, a Corkman, was suspected of spying. He was followed for some time until it was established that he was an enemy agent. He was executed in February 1921; a note, reading “Spies and Informers beware”, was left on the body. O’Sullivan would have had intimate knowledge of republican activities, for his brother served in the local IRA. Given the family connection, it seems unlikely he would have been shot without proof, or for merely being an ex-serviceman.

Tadhg Dwyer, a commander of a battalion in Co Tipperary, wrote that, towards the end of 1920, it was clear the British were getting information on the places used by IRA men on the run. Thomas Kirby, a local man, knew who they were and drank with the Black and Tans. He was ordered to leave the area but rejoined the British forces and remained within the county. In disguise, he helped the British in their search for wanted republicans. He was captured in a pub and admitted he was a spy but pleaded insanity. He was executed in January 1921.

If the IRA wished to kill ex-servicemen simply for their war service, they would have assassinated high-profile ex-officers, of which many lived in Cork City. Most of those executed were of low status and from the same community as members of the IRA. That suspects were given warnings or told to leave or, in some cases, even left alone because of insufficient evidence, contradicts the proposition that ex-servicemen were executed just for their war service.

The Free State Army formed to fight anti-Treaty republicans in the Civil War was, according to General Liam Tobin, an IRA intelligence officer who fought with the pro-Treaty forces, “largely officered by and recruited from ex-British soldiers, some of whom had fought against us in the war for independence”. It grew to almost 60,000 men, half of whom were British ex-servicemen.

The ex-servicemen ensured the survival of the new State and were given employment privileges by the Government; it was anti-Treaty veterans who were marginalised.

The ex-servicemen were not British loyalists and nor was the Free State radicalised and republican, and thus inherently hostile to all that was British. Kathleen Barry Moloney was from a staunch republican family.

Her brother, Kevin Barry, was executed by the British for his part in killing three British soldiers in 1920.

Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry

Her sister, Elgin, wrote to her describing the First World War remembrance ceremony in Dublin in 1924: “The Armistice celebrations were absolutely huge. Talk about the country being Free State or Republican. It’s British right through. Really I think we are rather wonderful to have the cheek to think that we could ever have made a republic out of this country”.

Describing Armistice Day in November 1930 in Cork City, the Cork Examiner reported: “The procession proceeded to the Cenotaph, where a large crowd of civilians were already assembled. The men made an imposing spectacle as they marched through the streets, the company numbered about 2,000 and the majority also displayed the poppy emblem. A touching feature was the number of young boys, wearing their dead father’s medals, who took part. Yesterday’s parade was undoubtedly the largest yet seen in Cork, and one of the most impressive.”

The paper reported “that the amount of money raised in Cork this year through the sale of poppies had exceeded all records” .

Memorials were raised locally, even in traditionally republican towns.

There is little to indicate the ex-servicemen were marginalised. General Mahon, a senior member of the British Legion,said in 1928: “A lot of humbug is talked about their being badly treated and kept out of positions because they served with the British forces. I have enquired into many cases myself and have never found yet an instance of hostility to anyone because he was an ex-service man.”

This did not change after the republicans came to power in 1932. A report in 1936 by the British Ministry of Pensions, who were present throughout Ireland, explains why: “The majority of ex-servicemen are members of the Fianna Fáil Party and supporters of the present government”, and “being anti-British in sentiment themselves are in no way hampered” and that “many of the higher posts in the Civil Service, army and police are held by British ex-servicemen”. Ironically, then, the British ex-servicemen would have been enthusiastic participants in next year’s commemoration.

Paul Taylor will give a presentation of his book, Heroes or Traitors? Experiences of Southern Irish Soldiers Returning from the Great War 1919-39 today at 4pm in Trinity College, Dublin (the Long Room Hub) in the Contemporary Irish History series followed by the book launch at 6pm.


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