Human tales bring home reality of Irish role in first World War

Stories of bravery illustrate often ignored part of Ireland and Britain’s shared history

Last Thursday evening, the Irish community of Kraainem in Brussels gathered for an evening of poetry, readings and film to mark the centenary of the first World War. Ireland's role in the war, once a forgotten history, has slowly moved into the historical mainstream as the Irish State has reconnected with this chapter of its past, symbolised most vividly by the 1998 visit to Flanders by then president Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II.

Some 200,000 Irish men are believed to have served in the first World War. In terms of the overall numbers involved – some estimates put the total death toll at 17 million – it seems a small number. But as Neil Richardson, the author of A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall, explains, a quick calculation of the census shows that between 25 and 30 per cent of Irishmen eligible for recruitment enlisted.

Richardson spoke at last week's event in Kraainem, one of many commemorative events planned in Belgium in association with the Irish Embassy over the next four years. The aim of his research, he told the audience, was to honour "the ordinary, private soldiers ... the guy who never kept a diary, who never kept a historical record". The result is a fascinating assortment of stories, using a blend of oral accounts and historical records.

These include the story of Maurice Dease. The 24-year-old Irishman from Gaulstown in Westmeath was a member of the 4th Royal Fusiliers who were sent to Belgium at the outbreak of the war. Dease, and many of his fellow Irishmen, fought at Mons, one of the first battles of the war, which saw the allies incurring heavy losses. Dease was responsible for manning a key crossing on the Mons canal.

As the Germans attacked and his comrades died around him, Dease continued to man his gun, crawling forward towards the enemy to reach a second machine gun despite having being shot.

Over the next month, his father in Drumree, Co Meath, received three telegrams with conflicting information about his status. Dease had in fact died that day, having been shot for a fourth or fifth time. He was the first allied soldier to receive the Victoria Cross.

Another story concerns Paddy Kennelly, a seaweed farmer from Ballybunion, Co Kerry. A member of the 9th Royal Munster Fusiliers, he managed to survive the Battle of the Somme, and the advance on Guillemont in 1916, during which the Royal Munster Fusiliers suffered hundreds of losses.

The following year, during the Battle of Messines Ridge, it seemed his luck ran out when he was shot in the chest during the advance on Wytschaete. As he lay injured on the chaotic battle field, he recognised a man running by.

It was Mikey Collins, a friend from Ballybunion, though neither had known the other was a member of the Fusiliers. The Boer War veteran carried his wounded friend on his shoulders back across no man's land, depositing him at a dressing station before returning to the battle. On return to Ireland the men became close friends, supporting each other as they tried to negotiate the difficult readjustment to civilian life. Both are buried in Ballybunion.

The story painted by Richardson of Irish involvement in the war is rich and heterogeneous, as he shows how men signed up for money, for political ideals, for adventure. But he also shows how Ireland treated its veterans on return.

Dublin man Bill Hand saw action in Gallipoli and Ypres, where his fellow stretcher-bearer and the patient were killed by a shell.

After the war, he suffered from shellshock and was committed to a mental institution. His children told his grandchildren he had died in the war. He in fact lived for another 45 years, dying behind closed doors in the institution in 1963.

It seems the national policy of containment revealed in the recent controversies over mother and baby homes and psychiatric institutions extended to the treatment of first World War veterans.

As Philippe Mingels, a Belgian historian, told the audience on Thursday, Irish people have only started visiting the battlefields in the last decade. He recalls visiting Ireland himself and not being able to find a book on the first World War.

“It was a footnote to other events that were going on.”