In praise of the fighting – and dying – Irish

Two books – Ireland’s Great War, by Kevin Myers, and The Glorious Madness, by Turtle Bunbury – examine the sacrifices demanded of Ireland in the Great War

 

It seems that almost everyone (myself included) is leaping on the Decade of Centenaries bandwagon, rushing to press, screen or microphone with some compelling contribution to the anniversary festivities.

Central to that decade is the engagement of Ireland in the first World War, and if any person has a greater justification than most for being involved it must be Kevin Myers, who for decades has campaigned to give the Catholic and nationalist Irish soldiers of the war the recognition they deserve.

The first essay in Myers’s moving, punchy and provocative volume was originally published in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1980. In Opening Shots he notes that the veterans of the war “are almost gone now, largely forgotten in their own country, the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who left these shores to fight other people’s battles”.

The phrase “other people’s battles” has more than a hint of the widely held assumption that the war was none of Ireland’s (or, at least, nationalist Ireland’s) business, an assumption that, 35 years on, Myers himself now questions. Elsewhere in the volume he challenges the mythology that, as he puts it, “real Irishmen had nothing to do with the war, that in reality it was someone else’s war with which the Irish had only an accidental, incidental interest”.

Underpinning a series of local studies – Sligo, Athy, Kilkenny, Kerry and Armagh – is an understanding that Irish participation was legitimate and justified. Myers, nevertheless, unexpectedly ducks the crucial, difficult question of what impelled people to join up. He also declares an inability to explore the emotional responses of women to the challenges of the war, which he rightly says is another generally unexplored aspect of the subject. But Myers follows this statement with one of the marvellous cameos with which the book is graced.

Years ago he interviewed a veteran, living in Rathgar, whose sister told him she had lost her fiance in the war. She had never married, and had spent the rest of her life looking after her brother, who had been left a semi-invalid from his war experience. As Myers departed he “leaned down and kissed her cheek, and she reeled in astonishment. She was silent for a moment or so. ‘No man has kissed me, even like that, since my Nigel kissed me goodbye at Kingstown,’ she whispered. He died in 1917; it was now 1980.”

Those left behind

Running through Ireland’s Great War is an aspiration to engage with the human dimension of the conflict, not just the fighting men but also those left behind. Myers valuably reminds us of the collateral damage done by the war. Robert Storey of the 1st battalion Royal Irish Rifles was home on leave in Dublin in January 1917. Due to report to his barracks in Belfast before returning to France, he cut his wife’s throat and then took his own life.

“He and his wife,” writes Myers, “were unquestionably victims of the war, yet they are on no known list of casualties” – until now. Typically, Myers also has a thought for the Storey’s son Robbie, about whom “we know nothing”.

There is a vigorous defence of Francis Ledwidge, who (despite the best efforts of his biographer, Alice Curtayne, to suppress this in the 1970s) thought that being a soldier was a finer vocation than being a poet.

Here Myers takes a swipe at the Abbey Theatre for in various ways playing a central role in the “falsification of Irish history of the twentieth century”. These include transmogrifying O’Casey’s Dubliner Bessie Burgess into a northern Orangewoman and promoting (in 1960) Sean Dowling’s play Bird in the Nest, a grotesque, thinly veiled misrepresentation of Ledwidge’s life.

Myers also takes on WB Yeats for bowdlerising and sanitising Robert Gregory in his poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Gregory, says Myers, was a “man who liked punching Sinn Féiners, who won a Military Cross for shooting well-defended enemy spotter balloons, pressing home his attacks through intense anti-aircraft fire, and then returning to kill their highly skilled and almost irreplaceable crews as they slowly parachuted to earth”. So not much “lonely impulse of delight” there. Myers sometimes uses a cudgel where a stiletto might do, but he is never less than entertaining.

He also explores some of the battlefields, including the terrible landscape of Verdun, with its “unique conjunction between medieval forms of war – of fort casemate and the subtle brutalities of laying a siege – and of modern warfare with its poison gas, flamethrowers, machine-guns, and its huge artillery shells”. These are all concentrated into “a killing zone the size of Phoenix Park”.

Myers looks at the Somme, dismisses the loyalist mythology that the men of the Ulster Division went over the top on July 1st wearing Orange sashes, and notes that, at the end of that grimly catastrophic day, there was a “glorious sunset”. Pte Robb of the Mid-Antrim Volunteers, he records, remembered that “someone in the reserve trenches start[ed] to sing Abide With Me. Then slowly all down the line the men took up the hymn . . .”

Turtle Bunbury’s The Glorious Madness is a less unsettling book, although one that would have been inconceivable without the opinion-changing efforts of Myers and others over the years. Bunbury has attempted to write not a definitive book of Irish involvement but “simply a collection of Great War stories with an Irish twist”.

Eclectic chapters

Bunbury’s selection is enterprising and eclectic, as illustrated by the first three substantive chapters: on the “Irish Dames of Ypres”, a Belgian convent displaced by the German invasion, which eventually relocated to Kylemore Abbey, in Co Galway; on Jack Judge, the son of an ironworker from Co Mayo, who composed It’s a Long Way to Tipperary; and on Jocelyn Lee “Hoppy” Hardy of Ulster, who lost a leg on the Western Front and was a champion escaper from POW camps and went on to be “one of the most notorious British intelligence operatives in Dublin” during the War of Independence.

In this engaging and attractive book – a triumph of the designer’s art – Bunbury’s metier is the largely traditional story well told. His account of the Dublin and Munster battalions’ landing at “V” Beach on Gallipoli in April 1915, for example, contrasts markedly with Myers’s strikingly revisionist account.

But, like Myers, Bunbury does not really address the conundrum of enlistment. Indeed, he appears to argue, especially with regard to the Western Front, that if the men had known what they were getting themselves into they would never have gone. But that is too simple. The 10,000 Irishmen who joined up in the last four months of the war knew exactly what to expect and still went.

We discount the potential determination and commitment to military service at our peril. Even at the very beginning, if they had known, they just might have joined up anyway. That is one of the problems with wars. Ireland’s Great War, by Kevin Myers (Lilliput, €20); The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish in the Great War, by Turtle Bunbury (Gill & Macmillan, €23.99)

Keith Jeffery is professor of British history at Queen’s University Belfast and author of Ireland and the Great War

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