Friday, July 27, 2007

Ireland & The Great War

The heritage of southern Ireland’s role in the Great War equates to what (Denman, 1992) terms a “historical no man’s land”, the political history of Irelands interconnections with Britain has often times seemed to marginalize, or even airbrush out of the National conscience this whole period of a very human history. The lack of acknowledgement for Irish participation in the war has largely been contributed to by the heroic strike for independence of 1916. The achievements of the Risings few has gone down in the history books very much at the expense of the, 49,550 (approx) Irishmen who gave their lives for no less noble a cause.
Due to what is a complex myriad of conflicting memories and opposing recollections it makes it almost impossible to present a common heritage for both of these events without questioning just which parts of history we are choosing to inherit. “Modern memory was born not just from the sense of a break with the past, but from an intense awareness of the conflicting representations of the past and the effort of each group to make its version the basis of national identity” (Gillis, J. R., 1994).
As John Morrissey points out, the involvement of Irish troops in the First World War was destined to “never feature prominently in a cultural narrative”, he goes on to propose the idea of “Multiplicitous memory” with the possibility of “Re-presenting their Irish heritage and its complex interconnections with Britain” as an alternative narrative to mainstream heritage. This essay attempts to discuss if perhaps, in the future due to the work of John Morrissey, Keith Jeffery and others there may yet be a place for these forgotten Irishmen within a collective heritage. “Heritage or at least effective heritage articulates for everyone thus it can be expansive and inclusive” (Brett D., 2000).

2. Background to the War

To begin to get a picture of how it came to be that nearly 50,000 Irishmen fought and died on the battlefields of Europe in the service of the British Empire, it is helpful to look at the chain of events that led to British and ultimately Irish involvement in the war.
28th of June 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife assassinated in Sarajevo. Several people arrested and interrogated by the Austrian authorities. Under extreme questioning several members of “The Black Hand” group claim three members from Serbia organised the plot. The German government announces its full support for Austro-Hungary if it decides to take reprisals against Serbia.
21st July: Advisors convince Emperor Franz Josef that Austro-Hungary could punish Serbia without the other major countries taking action.
24th July: Nikola Pasic (Serbian prime minister) and the Serbian government appeal to Russia for help against the proposed attack by the Austro-Hungarian Army.
28th July: Austro-Hungaria declares war on Serbia.
3rd August: Germany declares war on France. Belgian neutrality was guaranteed by Britain under a treaty signed in 1839. Sir Edward Grey, Britain's foreign secretary, warns Germany that Britain would go to war if Belgium was invaded (Chronology of The First World War, 2003). On the 4th August the German army marches into Belgium. Lloyd George sites this violation of Belgian neutrality as the single most important reason for swinging public opinion in favour of war (Ferguson, Niall, 1997).

3. Irish Involvement

It is difficult but important to try and gain an understanding of Irelands conflicting political landscape at the time, an example of its complexity being the reference to “the dead generations” in the proclamation of independence, it is dark irony that these dead generations were very much the Irishmen who were giving up their lives for the British war cause. The conflict of Irish allegiances and lack of support for the war owed much to the widespread belief that Irishmen should fight and die at home, or as Novick, (2001) has stated “Irish gain and the notion that the Great War was an imperial war that Ireland should have no part in”. The collective attitude then and since was to be summed up particularly well in the celebrated ballad of the time the The Foggy Dew, especially in the line “Twas better to die neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sedd el Bahr” (Morrissey, John, 2004).
Although much of the Irish population was opposed to the war there were still occasional voices in favour of our participation for very valid reasons. As Irish war poet and Nationalist, Francis Ledwidge, commented on joining up “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing” (Boyd, W., 2003). The sentiments of Ledwidge were similar to those of John Redmond who at the time had substantial political and social influence, (causing a split in the Irish volunteers) by pledging his support for England and the war “for the defence of small nations” (Moody T.W., Martin F.X., 2001).
In a wider and more human context there are numerous reasons why so many young Irishmen chose to enlist in the British armed forces, it is said some joined merely to escape the insular and monotonous nature of their own rural communities, and seek the adventure of foreign lands, whilst many others joined for economic reasons. “Poverty and unemployment were perennial realities to be faced in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. The “King’s shilling” was attractive, if only for a steady wage” (Denman, 1992; Jeffery, 2000).

Below is a map showing the different Irish regiments which contributed to The Great War in the service of the British Empire. Source: (Morrissey, John, 2004).

1.Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers (Counties Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone. Depot: Omagh).
2.Royal Irish Rifles (Counties Antrim and Down. Depot: Belfast).
3.Royal Irish Fusiliers (Counties Armagh, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. Depot: Armagh).
4.Connaught Rangers (Province of Connaught. Depot: Galway).
5.Leinster Regiment (Counties Laois, Offaly, Longford, Meath and Westmeath. Depot: Birr).
6.Royal Dublin Fusiliers (Counties Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Carlow. Depot: Naas).
7.Royal Irish Regiment (Counties Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford. Depot: Clonmel).
8.Royal Munster Fusiliers
(Counties Cork, Kerry,
Limerick and Clare. Depot: Tralee).

Of the eight Irish regiments who figured prominently in the War it is perhaps The Royal Irish Rifles who gained notoriety for their part in one of the most unique and bizarre episodes in war history. It was this regiment which were involved in the Christmas day armistice of 1914 which saw both sides leave their trenches, walk out and meet each other mid battlefield to exchange cigars and Christmas good wishes. A ceasefire was agreed which lasted up until midnight, whereupon the fighting resumed as per the agreement (Taylor, James W., 2002).
To better gauge the human cost to Ireland of our participation in the war, it is a poignant reminder to examine the parallels seen by troops arriving on foreign shores with that of Ireland. The following extracts are some of the comparisons of Ireland with the landscapes described by Keith Jeffery, (2004) as “unbearably beautiful”.
In the following account written by Henry Hanna a barrister in 1916, when the Royal Dublin Fusiliers got ashore at Suvla, they had touchingly linked features of the Mediterranean landscape with that of Dublin. One beach of pebble white strand was like that in Portmarnock, another part like Dollymount, behind the foreshore were low clay cliffs rather like the shore at Killiney bay. Later that week 239 strong D company or “The Larkinites” (so named after charismatic trade union leader Jim Larkin) were reduced to just 108 strong, advancing over hills that they had compared to the lower slopes of Ticknok in the Wicklow Mountains (Jeffery, K., 2000). In a similar account when the Connaught Rangers first arrived in the Dardanelles, it was with “eager curiosity that they looked at the novel scene” of hills surrounding a harbour similar to “a bay on the Connemara coast” but of land and sea “so very different in colour” (Cooper, 1993).

3.1. The Connaught Rangers

Below, cap badge detail of the Connaught Rangers. Source: (Chronology of the Connaught Rangers, 2002).

The regiment was raised by Colonel John Thomas de Burgh on Sep 25th, 1793 and they were stationed in Renmore barracks, Galway.
Motto: Quis Separabit, “Who shall divide us". They were nicknamed “The Devils Own”. Sheppard, Alan (2001).

In February 1922 on the recommendation of the Geddes committee on national expenditure six Irish regiments including the Connaught Rangers were disbanded. King George V speaking eloquently with evident emotion of the Connaught Rangers said, “be very sure that the fame of your great work can never die, I thank you for your good service to this country and the empire and with a full heart I bid you farewell” Sheppard, Alan (2001).

4. Commemoration

The Irish governments approach to the construction of a memorial or some form of commemoration to the war could best be described as bordering on the apathetic. Initial plans were drawn up for a stone monumental arch to stand at the front gate of the Phoenix Park. The commissioners of public works who were responsible for the park saw “no architectural or aesthetic reason” why permission for the arch should be refused, but in July 1928 the Executive council turned the proposal down (Jeffery, Keith, 2000). In stark contrast to the Irish approach, In 1919 the British government concerned about the prospects for ex- servicemen in what was clearly becoming a hostile nationalist Ireland provided with the Irish Land Act (which set out provision for sailors and soldiers) a housing and land settlement scheme which included the construction of up to 7,600 dwellings for ex-servicemen. The vice-president of the Irish local Government Board Sir Henry Robinson thought it would be “a good object lesson” for “disloyal people” in Nationalist districts to note that the government had not forgotten the patriotic Irishmen who stood by the empire in times of stress (Jeffery, Keith, 2000). The Irish government favoured a more practical memorial which would be of direct benefit to ex-servicemen and their families, proposals favoured were such as a reduced fairs ship for ex-servicemen to tour around Ireland, a playground, a memorial park came eight out of twelve ideas, whilst a pure monument was the least popular option of all (Jeffery, Keith, 2000). Eventually the Irish memorial trustees becoming increasingly anxious about their lack of progress, had even contemplated the unhappy possibility of returning subscriptions, one man wanted his £500 back so that he could erect his own memorial in his own church in memory of his son. Eventually it was decided that a monument would be erected by unemployed ex-servicemen on a 150-acre site at Islandbridge, across the river Liffey from the Phoenix Park (Jeffery, Keith, 2000).
Whilst the Islandbridge memorial itself is a poignant and striking monument owing much to Sir Edwin Lutyens symbolic design and style of simple dignity, the isolation of the memorial is a great shame. A Sunday Times article at the time complained that the site was a “distant backwater”. Even today it is not found on the route of any public bus services and a planned bridge to link it with the phoenix park has yet to be constructed.

Above, one of Lutyens evocative sunken rose gardens located either side of the Memorial.
Source: (Field trip to Dublin 08/12/04).

5. Conclusions

Whilst much of the present day (re) presentation of the Irish regiments is concerned with their remembrance and commemoration through iconographical recognition, we would do well to take account of our nature for continuously re-evaluating the past through our iconography, “Monuments and memorials, although durable as objects are subject to a constant evolution of meaning” (Gough, P., 2004). With this in mind there would seem to be a possibility here for a different kind of remembrance which does not require state approval of the erection of more memorials, but an effort on our part to re-discover our participation by collecting the legacy which still survives in the photographs, memoirs and personal accounts gathering dust in attics and cupboards around the country.
The section of history the Irish regiments occupy could also have implications for our contemporary relationship with our British and Northern Irish neighbours. The nature of these past interconnections is worthy of a degree of social re-evaluation, in order to prioritise the romantic and more than not often dangerous Southern Irish notion of a United Ireland, so long unobtainable because of the prejudices between two very similar peoples. “If a spirit of friendship can be established, then those sterile forces of hatred and violence which have flourished for so long will at last be crushed by the weight of public opinion” (Moody T.W., Martin F.X., 2001). Through this old union there could potentially be seeds of hope for the new peace on this island to succeed. We must try not to ignore our fraternity to fight and reap a peace for all and be willing to embrace our common grounds. Perhaps we can learn from this episode that by being aware of those that may attempt to hide or skew our heritages through selective history and ambiguous reasoning we can also inherit other more human heritages. At the very least the silence is now broken and that’s what matters, and we can begin to admit those we had forgotten, in to the shelter of our affections.

Edward Staunton


Boyd, W. (2003), ‘An Irishman’s Diary’, Irish Times, 12 February, (2003) in Morrissey, John, A Lost Heritage: The Connaught Rangers and Multivocal Irishness (2004).

Brett, David, The Construction of Heritage, Cork University Press, Cork, (2000).
Chronology of The Connaught Rangers, [], last updated 13/06/2002.
Chronology of The First World War, [], last updated 10/03/2003.

Cooper, B., The 10th (Irish) Division in Gallipoli, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, (1993).

Denman, T., Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers: The 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War, 1914-1918, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, (1992).

Ferguson, Niall, (ed.), p30, Memoirs of Lloyd George in Virtual History Alternatives and Counterfactuals, Macmillan Publishers, London, (1997).

Gillis, J. R., Memory and identity: the history of a relationship, in Gillis, R. (ed.), Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, The Princeton Press, New Jersey, (1994).

Gough, Paul, First World War remembrance, Corporations and Commemoration, International Journal of Heritage studies, No 5, Vol 10, 435-455, (Dec 2004).

Jeffery, Keith, Ireland and The Great War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, (2000).
Ibid, Somme Journey, First World War documentary, BBC, (2004).

Moody T.W., Martin F.X., The Course of Irish History, Mercier Press, Cork, (2001).

Morrissey, John, A Lost Heritage: The Connaught Rangers and Multivocal Irishness, (2004).

Novick, B., Conceiving Revolution: Nationalist Propaganda during the First World War, Four Courts Press, Dublin, (2001).

Sheppard, A., The Connaught Rangers, Osprey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, (2001).

Taylor, James W., The 1st Royal Irish Rifles In The Great War, Four Courts Press, Dublin, (2002).

My thanks to John Morrissey, Keith Jeffery et al.