Local historian seeks answers to perplexing question about the number of Irish war dead

49,400 names are recorded in Ireland’s Memorial Records

Soldiers wait in the trenches on the Western Front during the first World War as they prepare to make their way “over the top” to face the enemy. Photograph: Reuters

Soldiers wait in the trenches on the Western Front during the first World War as they prepare to make their way “over the top” to face the enemy. Photograph: Reuters

 

How many Irishmen died in the first World War? A century to the day from when Britain, and by extension Ireland, declared war on Germany, we still do not know the answer to that question.

Some 49,400 names are recorded in Ireland’s Memorial Records 1914-1918. That number is inscribed on the walls of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, but it is not correct. It includes soldiers who fought in Irish regiments, but were not Irish. Thousands of Irish-born soldiers who fought in regiments based in Britain are not included, nor are those Irish who fought in other armies.

Finding an answer to the question has consumed the energies of Thurles-based local historian Tom Burnell for the past seven years. He has gone to exhaustive lengths to “correct the memorial records”, as he puts it, and find out exactly how many Irish men died in the war.

He has trawled through all the casualties lists of the national newspapers, especially The Irish Times which kept up-to-date lists until the end of the war, and all the local provincial newspapers for the period.

He has sifted through all five volumes of De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour and similar books, magazines of the time such as the Sphere and the Graphic, which contained casualties lists, and the database which has records of the wills of 9,000 Irish soldiers. He spent two weeks going through every name on the De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour and picked out all the Irishmen, checking against the Memorial Records.

He uses the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and the 1911 census to cross-reference and ensure that those he includes are actually Irish.

To date he has done 16 of the counties in the Republic (he does not intend to cover the North because of a lack of resources). His research includes Irishmen who died in the Canadian, South African, Australian and New Zealand forces, although not the US where the records cannot be easily researched.

His figures are markedly different to the ones in the Irish Memorial Records. He says the figure for Dublin is 8,479, not 4,918 as listed, Cork is 4,33,8 not 2,244, Tipperary is 1,499, not 1,050, Carlow is 567 and not 324.

Every county he has examined to date has significantly more war dead than is contained in the Irish Memorial Records, some 50 per cent to 60 per cent more by his estimation. If extrapolated out for the whole of Ireland, it would suggest that the total Irish dead is more than 50,000, rather than the figure of 30,000-35,000 which is commonly cited.

His ultimate goal is to publish a new and updated version of the Irish Memorial Records for the Republic.