The first World War: Too much to hope?

Redmond’s gamble that Irish nationalism’s support for empire in first World War would cement home rule proved terribly wrong, but Great War was still ‘our war’

The Woodenbridge first World War Memorial Park in Co Wicklow, formally opened last month. The memorial, 15 stone pillars on which the names of the dead and their townlands are inscribed, commemorates the approximately 1,200 men from all parts of Co Wicklow who died in the first World War. It is inscribed with the lines of Francis Ledwidge’s poem below. Photograph: Jack McManus

The Woodenbridge first World War Memorial Park in Co Wicklow, formally opened last month. The memorial, 15 stone pillars on which the names of the dead and their townlands are inscribed, commemorates the approximately 1,200 men from all parts of Co Wicklow who died in the first World War. It is inscribed with the lines of Francis Ledwidge’s poem below. Photograph: Jack McManus

 

“Is it too much to hope that out of this situation there may spring a result which will be good not merely for the Empire, but good for the future welfare and integrity of the Irish nation?”

Sadly, yes. Too much to hope. And too heavy a price.

John Redmond in the Commons in 1914, in pledging the support of Irish nationalism to the cause of defeating German aggression, spoke as a supporter of empire, convinced that they were honourably defending small nations such as Belgium.

But Redmond also saw in the war a political opportunity not to be missed: to ensure both that London would be morally beholden to Ireland for its support, and hence unable to go back on its commitment to home rule; and that, in the brotherhood of combat, side by side with nationalists, unionists would come to see their way also to embrace home rule.

Ironically, the experience of the war would turn such logic on its head, as historian John Horne has written: “The terrible sacrifice in the war underwrote the refusal of Irish independence by unionist Northern Ireland, whereas the Easter Rising and the path to independence were founded on rejection by nationalists of the British war effort.”

It was a calculation, a gamble, by Redmond, who brought with him the substantial majority of the Volunteers, for which many thousands paid a heavy price – latest estimates put the Irish dead at 40,000. Their sacrifice, whether deluded or not, was largely airbrushed from our history for too long. Their fate would also seal Redmond’s political eclipse.

Yet, as Horne writes: “In every sense the Great War was ‘our war’. While never the sole determinant, it contributed decisively to the major turning-point of 20th century Irish history, 1913-1923, which saw a polarisation and realignment of national and political identities that has lasted to the present . . . divergent versions of the war experience lay at the heart of those opposed identities.”

Commemoration and the rediscovery of the war and our part in it – not, as some British minister would wish, its celebration, or pace John Bruton, celebration of John Redmond – must play a central part in the re-exploring, unravelling and rewriting of our complex national narrative in this decade of commemoration.

It will be a commemoration unlike previous ones precisely because of its inclusiveness, and because of a new narrative emerging in which all play their part. Not just the winners.

This supplement is an attempt to reflect on some of that Irish experience of and contribution to the war and particularly, in the “war stories”, on the lives of some extraordinary Irishmen and women. It is also by way of an acknowledgment of the work of that curmudgeon and erstwhile Irish Times colleague, Kevin Myers, who worked tirelessly and largely alone over the years to bring this war out of the shadows of our history.

Patrick Smyth