Remembrance and forgetting

Sat, Sep 29, 2012, 01:00

HISTORY:CATRIONA CROWE reviews A Kingdom United By Catriona Pennell Oxford University Press, 308pp. £65

JOHN HORNE, in his introduction to Our War (2008), a book on Ireland’s involvement in the first World War, the mere title of which caused some controversy at the time, quotes Sigmund Freud in 1915 on the subject of the war: “ has brought to light an almost incredible phenomenon: the civilised nations know and understand one another so little that one can turn against the other with hate and loathing.”

Further on in the same essay, Freud writes: “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands in a single day.”

Horne identifies in his introduction three major features of the war that have emerged from the scholarship of the past 20 years: “The first is the intensity with which societies engaged with it. The second is the mass death caused in combat. The third is remembrance – how people came to understand an event whose trauma none had anticipated.”

Ireland has had a fraught relationship with the first World War since its outset, in terms of the differing perspectives on the island in 1914 and the needs created by those perspectives to either use or forget the event after it finished. From 1922 onwards, the Northern Ireland state used the Great War as an iconic representation of the heroic loyalty and patriotism of its Protestant inhabitants, while the southern State engaged in official and often familial amnesia with regard to those who fought, died and were wounded in the first mass industrial war in history. Both sides effectively froze the war into shapes or absences that served darker purposes to do with foundation myths for societies born in violence.

Edwin Lutyens’s beautiful war memorial at Islandbridge in Dublin lay ruined and neglected until its magnificent restoration by the Office of Public Works in 1988. As well as historians such as Horne and Keith Jeffery, journalists such as Myles Dungan and Kevin Myers, novelists such as Sebastian Barry and playwrights such as Frank McGuinness have done much to focus our attention on one of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century, in which 30,000-35,000 Irishmen lost their lives, far more than the (approximately) 6,000 killed in the struggle for independence and the Civil War. The unveiling of the memorial tower at Messines in 1998 marked an important recognition by the Irish State of the necessity to acknowledge these losses.

How did Ireland respond to the outbreak of the war in 1914? Catriona Pennell, who contributed a valuable chapter to Our War, has examined public responses to the war in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales from its start in August 1914 until Christmas, the first 20 weeks of the conflict. She uses an array of sources, ranging from national and local newspapers to personal diaries, police reports, memoirs, oral histories and political papers. Her title reflects her thesis that Britain and Ireland were, by and large, united in embracing the war at first, often for quite different reasons. Although her exploration of the British response is fascinating, it’s her investigation of Ireland that will be of most interest here.

She acknowledges that the Irish situation was completely different from that in Britain, due to the Home Rule crisis and the threat of civil war, created largely by the arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force, pledged by the Ulster Covenant to resist Home Rule by “all means which may be found necessary”. Ironically, war abroad meant peace at home, as both the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the Ulster Unionists understood the necessity to support the war effort, for exactly opposite reasons: the IPP saw support for the war as an essential tool for the achievement of Home Rule, suspended for the duration of the war; unionist Ulster was more naturally inclined to support the war, and hoped to defeat or vitiate the dreaded threat of Home Rule at its conclusion.

Pennell takes us into the minds of ordinary citizens, to the extent that such records are available, thus giving a rich picture of the ambiguities and uncertainties rife at that time. She makes excellent use of the statements collected at the Bureau of Military History (recently made available online at, a source that gives a flavour of both mainstream and advanced nationalist thinking at the time, really the nub of the old conventional wisdom that nationalist Ireland was opposed to the war from the beginning. She identifies ignorance of European developments as one of the key motifs characterising the nationalist response. For example, in his Bureau of Military History statement, Kevin O’Shiel writes: “by the first week in August, events that we had hardly noticed had plunged Germany, France, Austria and Servia into war . . . the idea of such a war struck us as fantastic, and indeed ludicrous.”

Other statements testify to large nationalist crowds seeing off soldiers destined for the front, cheering them on and giving them presents.

Sympathy for “little Catholic Belgium” had a great deal of force among nationalists in the early weeks of the war, and was bolstered by reports and rumours of German atrocities in Belgium, and by the arrival of refugees in September and October. The Catholic Church threw its weight behind Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist in the defence of small nations. While Irish recruitment was lower than that in other areas, this is largely explained by the lack of an industrialised working class – prime fodder for the army – and the reluctance of farmers to lose their sons’ essential labour on the land. Fears of a German invasion were widespread, as they were in Britain, prompting attacks on German pork butchers’ shops in Dublin in September and October. None of this is surprising: political strategy, popular hysteria and the force of a huge, unprecedented event swept nationalist Ireland up in initial enthusiasm for the defeat of Germany, perceived as a far worse oppressor than England.

Pennell’s acute interrogation of the wide variety of sources she consults proves that nationalist Irish public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of the war at its outset. This was to change as the full enormity of industrialised warfare, the inevitability of a long war and the blatancy of the dreadful sacrifice of millions of young lives to imperial ambitions became clear, and as the focus of nationalist opinion shifted to aspirations for independence after the 1916 Rising.

Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland and a member of the Universities Ireland Steering Group on the decade of commemorations