Lost for words: Irish writing on the first World War

There is no convenient canon of Irish war literature, like that which appeared in Britain, even though Ireland had three towering literary figures in Shaw, Yeats and Joyce at the time, working at the pinnacles of poetry, prose and drama

In June 1915 WB Yeats wrote to his American friend and patron John Quinn about the Great War then raging across Europe. It was, he said, “merely the most expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen and I give it as little thought as I can. I went to my club this afternoon to look at the war news but read Keats’s Lamia instead”. Yeats had already made his studied indifference clear. Earlier that year, the great novelist Henry James had asked him for a war poem to be included in an anthology to raise money for Belgian refugees.

In response, he published the dismissive little lyric On Being Asked for a War Poem which, he told James, was the only thing he could write on the subject "till bloody frivolity is over":

I think it better that in times like these A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right . . .

This was obviously disingenuous: the idea that poets have nothing to say about contemporary events is not one that survives any scrutiny of Yeats’s own reflections on Irish politics. It did not stop Yeats making poetry from the Easter Rising in 1916, for example. But Yeats knew what he was doing, or in this case not doing. Avoiding the war was a strategic move – Yeats’s keen instincts told him that this would not be an easy subject for Irish literature.


During the war years, Ireland had three towering literary figures, working at the pinnacles of their respective forms in poetry, prose and drama. And none of them connected directly with the great cataclysm that was unfolding around them. Yeats was wary – though he would eventually be forced to write a different kind of war poem. The death of Robert Gregory, the only son of his great ally Augusta Gregory, shot down by friendly fire over Italy, obliged Yeats to memorialise him.

It is telling that it took him three goes to fully succeed and that when he did so it was through a magnificent evasion. After Shepherd and Goatherd and In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, Yeats pulled off the one great poem he made out of the first World War, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Unable to avoid the death, he instead avoids the war: its hatreds, its mass deaths, its tortured landscapes. He literally and figuratively flies above it, turning Gregory from loyal defender of Britain against Germany (which he was) into an abstract, solitary existential hero:

I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above; Those that I fight I do not hate Those that I guard I do not love; My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan's poor, No likely end could bring them loss Or leave them happier than before.

James Joyce, meanwhile, escaped the war by fleeing to neutral Switzerland. Joyce had no use for the war, and not just because he was a pacifist. The great catastrophe would change the shape of 20th century literature, smashing its notions of order and form. But Joyce was already well ahead of this game. He was making his own revolution in the book he was writing in Zurich, Ulysses. It is set, notably, in 1904, safely distanced from the war.

The third big figure, Bernard Shaw, was certainly not shy about setting statesmen right. As a polemicist Shaw took up the cudgels, publishing the hugely controversial Common Sense About the War in late 1914, when war fever was at its height and it still seemed possible that this would be a glorious enterprise.

It is not a pacifist tract – Shaw concluded that since Britain was now in the war it would have to win it. But it does indict the secret diplomacy and the lack of democratic accountability that had made it possible for ruling elites, including that in Britain, to draw their people into such an enormous conflict. Even more infuriatingly, Shaw tears apart the propaganda that the war is a moral crusade and argues that Britain is every bit as belligerent, as undemocratic and as beholden to a reactionary landed aristocracy as Germany is.

The essay outraged even most of Shaw’s left-wing friends.

But what of Shaw the playwright? He got off the stage. Shaw wrote his strange, apocalyptic farce Heartbreak House during the war as an indictment of the fecklessness of the English elite. But he did not publish it, let alone attempt to have it staged.

As he wrote in the preface when it was published in 1919, "comedy, though sorely tempted, had to be loyally silent; for the art of the dramatic poet knows no patriotism; recognises no obligation but to natural history; cares not whether Germany or England perish".

The absence of these three titans might be seen as clearing the field of Irish literary response to the Great War. There were, after all, highly significant Irish writers who did not have the option of being indifferent to the war for the simple reason that they actually fought in it. Irish writers who joined up and did their time in the trenches include figures as diverse as CS Lewis (author of the Narnia Chronicles), the early Abbey playwright George Fitzmaurice, the "navvy poet" Patrick MacGill, the prose writers Liam O'Flaherty and James Hanley and, most poignantly, the lyric poet Francis Ledwidge, blown apart by a shell while drinking tea in a mud hole in Belgium in 1917.

There is not, however, a convenient canon of Irish war literature analogous to that which emerged in England. After the immediate post-war years, Ledwidge was largely forgotten until Alice Curtayne and Brian Cleeve revived his reputation in the 1970s. Fitzmaurice fell out of favour with the Abbey (in part because of his war service) and his war experiences, if they can be said to be reflected in his work at all, are refracted through surreal dramatic fantasies that bring a sense of violence and derangement back home to Irish folklore.

Lewis, of course, is generally categorised as “English”, even though he was from Belfast and identified himself as Irish. He, like Fitzmaurice, sublimated his war experiences into fantasy.

The most direct contemporary Irish fiction about the war is undoubtedly MacGill's trilogy of novels, The Amateur Army, The Red Horizon and – his best book – The Great Push. What they lack in artfulness, they make up in immediacy. They are scarcely novels at all: MacGill based them closely on his own diaries and The Great Push is explicitly narrated by "Rifleman P. MacGill". One chapter was actually written in a trench during the Battle of Loos.

This immediacy comes at a cost – because the books were written by a serving soldier, they were subject to both official censorship and MacGill's sense of duty to the war effort. In 1920, when he produced Fear!, one of the earliest literary attacks on the war, the blurb (which may have been MacGill's own) noted that, "The blue pencil of the Censor was too busy during the war to allow a realist such as Patrick MacGill a chance of exposing the truth."

As is the case with so much of Irish war literature, obscurity overtook MacGill's work – he fell out of fashion and emigrated to the United States.

After the war, and in the midst of momentous political changes in Ireland, a question hung over Irish war literature: was it really Irish at all? Or, to put it another way, was the war a fit subject for Irish writing? There was a gradual process of exclusion. One of the most influential (and best-selling) books about the war, Robert Graves's autobiographical Goodbye to All That, published in 1929, is never considered as part of Irish literature, even though Graves consistently identifies himself in it as being Irish. Its account of the destruction by the war of the facade of an Anglo-Irish "gentleman" is not, apparently, Irish enough.

The world to which Graves belonged – being Irish in the context of the United Kingdom and the Empire – had been radically revised.

The tensions around the place of the war in an Irish literary identity came to a head a year before Graves published his book, with the rejection by the Abbey of the most important Irish war play, Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie. Here, Yeats projected his own scepticism about the war as a subject onto the Abbey's star playwright.

The Silver Tassie was intended by O'Casey to be the fourth play in the cycle that included The Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the Stars, and Juno and the Paycock. He meant to reflect the reality that there were four episodes of violence from which the new State had emerged: the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War and the first World War.

The first three plays had been immensely popular and had made O’Casey the mainstay of the Abbey. But Yeats’s objections to the idea that the first World War should be seen as part of recent Irish history were so strong that he created a permanent breach with O’Casey.

Perhaps because he himself had so little use for the war, Yeats came to resent very deeply the valorisation of those poets who wrote from their direct experience of the trenches. Yeats would exclude the British war poets from his Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, complaining of Wilfred Owen that his work is "unworthy of the poet's corner of a country newspaper", "all blood, dirt and sucked sugar-stick . . . There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him."

Unfortunately for O'Casey, The Silver Tassie takes its theme from Owen's poem Disabled, and centres on a Dublin football player who goes off to the war and returns in a wheelchair to the loss of everything he had. Yeats's response was to instruct O'Casey on what was and was not a fit subject for him to address and to make clear that the war was in the second category: "You have no subject . . . You are not interested in the Great War; you never stood on its battlefields or walked its hospitals, and so write out of your opinions."

This was a profound moment in the history of Irish literary responses to the war – to this day O’Casey’s early plays are routinely referred to as “the Dublin trilogy”. That it should be the Dublin quartet is a reminder that the war didn’t just disappear from Irish writing – it was repressed.

This repression is all the more striking because it could be argued that, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a distinctive Irish response to the great catastrophe was beginning to emerge. That response was deliberately extreme. It saw the war not just as a historical disaster but as an existential crisis, one that raised questions, not about Ireland, Britain or Europe, but about humanity itself. There are, in particular, two short, extremely brutal works from the same period as The Silver Tassie that push literature down into the mud and filth of no man's land and approach a kind of absolute nihilism. It is striking that both were written by men who had actually served on the western front and that neither of them has any place in the Irish canon.

One of these books is Liam O'Flaherty's Return of the Brute, published in 1929. O'Flaherty's war experiences left him with what we would now call post-traumatic stress – in his memoir Shame the Devil, he wrote briefly about being hit by a shell and added, tellingly, that, "You have to go through life with that shell bursting in your head."

Return of the Brute is an ugly shellburst of a book. A platoon of nine Irish and English soldiers stumbles in the night from one meaningless hole to another, with man after man dying in ever more absurd ways. Eventually, the main figure, Gunn, succumbing to delusions that the soldiers have all turned into apes, turns his rifle on his corporal and then on himself. There is no moral, no redemption, nothing but the implosion of humanity. Typically, Return of the Brute disappeared from the canon of O'Flaherty's work – the few critics who have written about it dismiss it as unworthy of him.

There is a book even more extreme, however: James Hanley's short, appallingly brutal and deliberately obscene novella The German Prisoner. It was published privately in 1930 in a small edition and many of those copies were seized as "obscene". It remained out of print thereafter until 1997, when it was published, somewhat bizarrely, as a work of Canadian literature, on the basis that Hanley, a working class man from an Irish community in Liverpool, served in the war in a Canadian regiment.

The German Prisoner is fully alert to its own obscenity. It pares the war down to the unspeakable. Two veteran soldiers, O'Garra, who is from the same Dublin slums as O'Casey's characters and Elston, who is from a similar slum in Manchester, get lost in a literal and moral no-man's-land during an attack on the Western Front.

The action unfolds in a physical and human abyss: the large shell crater into which O’Garra and Elston fall. There, they are joined by a young, blond German soldier who falls in and whom they take prisoner. They proceed to abuse, sexually torture, rape and beat him to death. They are then themselves blown apart by a shell. There is no escape, no transcendence – just the sense that this is the war: two men in a black hole murdering a third man.

The rest, for a long time, is silence. It may be that after The German Prisoner, there was nothing left to be said. It is certainly also that it had been made plain that the war is not a fit subject for Irish literature.

It took Jennifer Johnston's pathbreaking 1974 novel How Many Miles to Babylon? to make it so again. Johnston created a possibility that O'Casey, O'Flaherty and Hanley could never have imagined: that the war could become, even in all its horror, a way of envisaging tolerance in Ireland. Her tragic story of the intertwined fates of an upper and a lower-class Irishman created a new template: that of the war as a shared experience in a divided society.

The war became, paradoxically, a way of thinking about peace in the context of the continuing Troubles. Powerful works such as Frank McGuinness's play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way explored the experiences of, respectfully, Ulster Protestant and southern Catholic loyalists in the context of the war.

At last the great war had found a positive purpose in Irish literature – as the large catastrophe that put small local divisions into perspective.