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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Time for the Dead

Mick Hall • 23 March 2004

On reading that a new memorial in the Irish Republic to those Irishmen who lost their lives in World War One, whilst serving in the British Armed Forces has been erected, via public subscription in the village of Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, I got to thinking about Irish attitudes to the Great War of 1914-18. For it was out of the flames of that great imperialist conflagration that Ireland's Statehood indirectly arose, albeit in its still uncompleted form, along with other European nations such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Revolutionary Russia, some of which have faltered along the way, imploding or realigning themselves in the process.… Indeed it could be said that the emergence of these States as independent entities was about the only decent thing that WW1 brought forth.

Ireland's manhood who went off to war and those they left behind at home suffered as much as any nations involved in the Great War. An approximately half a million Irishmen served in the British Armed Forces during that war, out of a population of less than 4.5 million, the vast majority volunteers as the British failed to enforce conscription in Ireland as they had in England, Scotland and Wales, for fear of the political consequences. Although in April 1918, at the height of the great German Spring offensive on the Western Front, desperate for what can only be described as 'new blood,' if one takes into account the slaughter then taking place on the Western Front, the British Government introduced a fifth version of the Conscription Act. Its most notable provision extended age eligibility so that men aged from 17 to 51 could be called up. In addition the act was, for the first time, to be applied to men in Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, although the policy was never actually implemented in Ireland. Nevertheless by the end of this unnecessary, wretched meat grinding imperialistic slaughter, approximately fifty thousand Irishmen had lost their lives. Thus the tragedy of WW1 touched, if not every Irish home, then almost certainly every town, village and remote rural community. The vast majority of these men who marched off to war with the cheers of their fellow country men and women ringing in their ears returned as ogres who were best advised to keep their experiences to themselves. Historically they can be compared with the US servicemen who fought in Vietnam, although the returning Irishmen's predicament was ten times worse. Some went to their graves without even talking to their closest family about what they had endured, national events had by-passed them, leaving them in an historical no-man’s land.

By the time it became fashionable to site in almost every town and village of Britain, cenotaph's in memory of the dead of WW1, mainly copied from or inspired by the one erected in London's Whitehall, designed by E. L. Lutyens with the inscription to the memory of 'Our Glorious Dead' written upon it, Ireland had experienced the Easter Rising and the Tan War out of which the Irish Free State had emerged. The memories of the Civil War that followed its establishment were still fresh. Thus Ireland had need of other heroes, who in the eyes of many at the time were far more worthy and patriotic than the Irish victims of perfidious Albion’s imperialist conflagration with its European rivals. So apart from the six north eastern counties of Ireland, which due to its Protestant and Unionist majority, coupled with a fair amount of chicanery, deceit and violence remained loyal to the British Crown, the rest of the country having become the Irish Free State, like any newly established State desperately required its own heroes to celebrate and inspire. Within a generation monuments to the martyrs of the Republic were as thick on the ground in the South as those to the 'Glorious Dead' were in the north and across the sea in the rest of the UK. One could hardly catch a train or walk down a street without seeing a reminder of Irelands own newly created, 'glorious dead'.

There is little doubt that these days with the 'Republic' of Ireland becoming an ever more confident country, at home in its own shoes and its place in the world, it was inevitable that the question of its dead of World War One would arise. After all many feel that by ignoring these men, Ireland has not shown its best side (there were few women). And by so doing, Ireland has almost implied that by volunteering to fight for Great Britain, there was something almost traitorous about them. Many now seem to feel it is time to move on. However before it will be possible to do so, we have to understand how it was that the actions of half a million men during the years 1914-18 were wiped from Irelands historical slate.

To do so one has to remember the traumatic split that took place within Ireland's national movement during the Great War. The Irish volunteers having been formed in response to the Ulster Volunteer Force, were in the main made up of two traditions, the physical force Fenians and those who believed Home Rule could be gained from Britain by parliamentary methods. The latter was led by John Redmond, a one time aid to Parnell. Redmond, when war broke out, like many of his class, called on Irishmen to come to England's aid and in return after the conflict the mother country would grant home rule. Tens of thousands of Irish Volunteers followed Redmond's call and joined up to fight the Hun in France. Sure for some it was necessary to dress up this support for an imperialist war as fighting for noble, newly occupied Catholic Belgian, where it was said the Hun pitchforked tiny Catholic babies in the streets on the end of their bayonets. As always the priesthood was only to willing to offer their services to their flocks' oppressors and send the message out from their pulpits that their parishioners should go forth like sheep and offer themselves up as cannon fodder. In reality however in 1914 such encouragement was hardly necessary as a patriotic fever raged in Irish towns and cities as it did throughout Europe; after all those going to war would be home by Christmas covered in glory. Add to these poor souls, those who joined the colours out of economic necessity or due to their having emigrated to England and ended up being conscripted, it is easy to see how the half a million figure was reached.

The section of the Irish Volunteers whose allegiance was to the Fenian tradition, i.e. England's difficulties is Ireland's opportunity, would have none of this and with the start of the war they began busying themselves planning a rising within Ireland, and as the man said, the rest is history.

Today in the south the political establishment and the Provisional Republican Movement, who may soon become part of it can afford to show some compassion on this issue. For it should not be overlooked that many of those who became Republican leaders, along with there enemies who helped establish the Free State had served in World War One. Indeed diehard republicans such as Tom Barry and Erskine Childers learnt much of their military craft within the ranks of the British Army, as did many who went on to found the Free State's Army

Having said this, one of the major problems many have in officially paying there respects to the dead of WW1 is that the ceremonies are currently organised under the auspices of the Royal British Legion. For many this is a step to far as this organisation has such close ties with the British Army and remembers the war dead in a very jingoistic manner. The slogan on the cenotaph, Our Glorious Death, sums them up, i.e., These people died for King and Country. Whereas in Ireland, as in other parts of the British Empire many of those who fought were doing no such thing but for a host of often complicated reasons. Is it not time the 'Republic' of Ireland reclaimed its own WW1 dead by setting up an Irish organisation to commemorate them? Perhaps with British troops still on the ground in the north of Ireland it is to soon to go down this road there, as it may well send out the wrong political message. The nationalist communities there will have to decide when they feel the time is right.

But in the Republic of Ireland, perhaps it is time to have at least a public debate at whether these men should at long last, be shown the respect many feel they deserve. To recap, those who joined the British Armed Forces, to fight in World War One may have been mistaken to do so, but as I have said above many did so for the best of reasons, following Redmond's mistaken call that if they did so, Ireland would gain its freedom in the realignment of European nations at the war's end. Others followed the time honoured tradition within Ireland of taking the English King's shilling when times were hard. True some followed the beat of the jingoists drum, but they were not alone in doing so, most of Europe's young manhood were at that time tapping their toes to that wretched beat. The point is this, are these men to follow the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who fought for perfidious Albion over the period of its occupation of Ireland, ever doomed to be relegated to a neverland of historical mists. Or is it not time that the Irish people claimed them as their own, whilst nevertheless recognising that like most of humanity at one time or another, they made a wrong choice, which for them cost them dear?

To understand the calibre of these men and the courage on the battlefield many of them showed, I will finish with the military awards given to just one.

James McCudden, of County Carlow who was awarded the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order and bar, Military Cross and bar, Military Medal and the Croix de Guerre.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

23 April 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


It Hasn't Gone Away You Know
Anthony McIntyre


Brian Mór


We're on the One Road
Tommy McKearney


Easter Week in Derry and the Lazarus Complex
Eamon Sweeney


Time for the Dead

Mick Hall


POWs and the Challenge of Partnership
Aoife Rivera Serrano


'A Real Sensuous Pleasure'
Liam O Ruairc


The Letters page has been updated.


19 April 2004


The Laughter of Our Children
Anthony McIntyre


Prisoners Families Physically Removed from Maghaberry Visit
J. Sean Burns, IRPWA


Profile of a Glove
Kathleen O'Halloran


Irish Americans
Gerry O'Hare


The Globe and the Village

Lila Rajival




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