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Local history: Horrors, heavy losses and human stories of Irish people during the World Wars

From families that were torn apart to the twists and turns of one father’s escape from war

The horrors of the first World War and the heavy losses suffered by an Irish regiment are traced in ‘Come on the Dubs!’ A Brief History of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, €10). A total of 827 officers and 13,406 men of other ranks served in the Fusiliers, with 4,858 killed or dying of their wounds. They came from all walks of life; some were labourers or from skilled or semi-skilled occupations while others had professional backgrounds. The devastating effect of chlorine gas attacks left many debilitated but others died because of army procrastination in providing medically recommended antimalarial supplies such as mosquito nets, gloves and quinine.

The human story of individual families who suffered bloodshed on the western front is brought out. Three McDonnell brothers (John, Patrick and Peter) from Bride Street, Dublin, were killed in 1915. Families were torn apart between those who went off to fight and those who stayed at home. Sergeant William Malone died in 1915 while the following year his brother, Lieut Michael Malone of the Irish Volunteers, was killed at Northumberland Road during the Easter Rising. In 1917 Company Sergeant-Major William Kent, who was killed on the front, was the brother of Commandant Eamon Ceannt, executed a year earlier for his part in the Rising.

The memory of those who volunteered in the Great War is a neglected part of Irish history, and is uncovered in The Forgotten (Harvest Press, €15) by Gerard Whelan. He surveys the new Ireland which awaited those who returned to Castledermot, Co Kildare, charting the lives and deaths of the men who fought. The personal records of each solider are documented page-by-page with a poignant synopsis detailing the circumstances of those killed in action. They were from many regiments, including the Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Irish Rangers, Connaught Rangers and Inniskilling Dragoons.

One of the most enigmatic stories is that of Edward Geraghty who enlisted in no fewer than seven different regiments between 1892 and 1915. At various times he was on the run, then discharged, went AWOL, and although described as being incorrigible, was a competent combat solider promoted to Lance Sergeant. Geraghty was wounded in action and died in a military hospital in Malta in December 1915. Neither a eulogy nor apology for those who served in the war, the book is a powerful evocation of their lives, showing that the soldiers were ignored or at worst disparaged.


The daring second World War account of a Waterford man who was conscripted into the British army while working in England and escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland is vividly brought to life in Tom McGrath’s Unspoken: A Father’s Wartime Escape. A Son’s Family Discovered (Gill, €16.99). His father, also called Tom, hatched a dramatic escape from the Stalag camp leaving behind hundreds of crippled and frail prisoners held in harsh conditions. This was followed by a series of terrifying train journeys across occupied Europe in which he feared being recaptured before reaching what he thought would be the relative safety of the Spanish Pyrenees. However, this led instead to him being imprisoned and transferred to a concentration camp for not having identity papers.

With an unwavering passion to find the truth, his son embarked on his own quest. Based on years of interviews and intensive research, he documented the twists and turns of his father’s escape, travelling on an impassioned journey across Europe in his footsteps. Determined to track down his family’s past, he discovered not only that his father had gained the recognition he deserved but unearthed other surprises, all recounted in an engaging and emotional way.

Northern Ireland, The United States and the Second World War by Simon Topping (Bloomsbury, £76.50) presents an analysis of the US military presence in Northern Ireland during the war, a subject which has been largely forgotten. The book examines the role of the Stormont government in managing the deployment of what would eventually be 300,000 troops – known as “Johnny Doughboys” – many of whom married “Irish Roses” as they passed through on their way to and from Britain and the war in Europe. Some were navy personnel and marines based in Derry, others were stationed along the Border, while aviators operated flying boats at Lough Erne. According to the author, not only did the troops bring their music, gum, movies, sports and generosity but also “racism, arrogance, criminality and seeming inability to hold their drink”.

Consideration is given to the diplomatic and military aspects of the US presence and its impact on local sectarian and cross-Border dynamics, as well as internal and international politics. The book fills important gaps about overlooked aspects of the war. It also provides a comprehensive examination of wartime transatlantic diplomacy and reassessment of David Gray, the US minister to Dublin, who was “livid’ about a cardinal’s complaint that US troops were “overrunning Northern Ireland”.

A completely different take on the second World War is outlined in We Just Got On With It (History Press, £16.99) by Doreen McBride who considers changes in Northern Ireland before, during and after the conflict. An anthology of anecdotes and interviews by local historians and cross-community groups is brought together in 10 chapters looking at essential agricultural and industrial work, transport, refugees and smuggling. Everyday life in small towns, most of which boasted a barber, shoemaker and dressmaker, is explored. Illnesses such as measles, mumps, chickenpox and tuberculosis were commonplace and doctors provided home visits when necessary.

Paul Clements

Paul Clements is a contributor to The Irish Times