Remembrance and forgetting
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 bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie), 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