An Irishman's Diary

One of the most striking features of the last election was the emergence of a young vote which knew so little about the events…

One of the most striking features of the last election was the emergence of a young vote which knew so little about the events and people which shaped those older than it. The world has changed, goes the whisper: How can they know about the land they live in? There is no point of contact between the present that they inhabit and the past which lies so heavily concealed beneath the weight of popular culture, writes Kevin Myers.

And so it must seem to some. Yet there is no such thing as post-history, no such thing as historical rivers vanishing underground for all time. The waters of human affairs take strange turns, but they follow predictable rules, and they so often come back to the same place, to haunt us all.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is such a place, where religions seem to collide. The place where Christ is said to have been born might be expected to be a place of unity; yet as we know, it is not; for it is here that a terrible encounter, with appalling consequences, occurred between peoples of two religious, and ceaseless warring religious traditions.

I do not refer to the recent conflict between Palestinian and Israeli, but between Orthodox and Roman Catholic, 152 years ago, in which several Orthodox monks were killed by Catholic monks, and the preparations thus laid for the Crimean War. And until I received a copy of David Murphy's recently published Ireland and the Crimean War, (Four Courts Press), I had no idea how large the war bulked in Irish consciousness at the time, how fervently Irish people felt in its favour. And only because I have a certain passing interest in such matters was I aware of the enormous military contribution Ireland made to the war.


Mainstream Irish life

It was, in its own, rather more modest, mid-Victorian way, the perfect precursor to that other, far vaster, and infinitely more ghastly war which followed 60 years later, not merely in the abominable conditions in which men had to fight, but also in how the ranks of Irish scholars closed around it, and wrote it off the pages of history. Now, in a single, astounding work, David Murphy has restored the Crimean War to where it belongs - in the mainstream narrative of Irish life in the 19th century.

Most of us would have had a notion that large numbers of Irishmen, driven desperate by post-Famine poverty, enlisted in the British army at that time, simply as an economic choice: mercenary soldiering at its most straightforward. And any perusal of a war memorial to an English county regiment for the war would reveal more Murphys, O'Sullivans and O'Donnells than the villages of Kent or Hampshire could ever claim undiluted credit for.

Enthusiasm for war

And indeed, as mercenary fodder, such men served and fell at Inkerman and Balaclava. But the Irish involvement in the war was by no means confined to such recruits. For very many Irishmen enlisted specifically to fight the Czar. War enthusiasm at its most cretinous, one might safely, though not very usefully, say at this distance, was widespread at that time, and not just among the traditionally "loyal" classes.

War hunger embraced all creeds and all classes, and bore thousands of Irishmen to their various fates amongst the rank and file of the thin red line, and its most forthright Irish parliamentary proponent was Isaac Butt. Even the Cork Examiner trumpeted:

"No alternative is left to us. . .and unless we would submit. . .to crouch under the insolent dictation of a barbaric power, and see the liberties of Europe disappear under the tramp of the Cossack, we had no other course. . ."

From the Crimea we receive glimpses of an Ireland which is now perfectly vanished: Philip O'Flaherty, a soldier with the 7th Foot, a fluent linguist and an ardent Presbyterian from Mayo, used to write to his mentor, the Rev Michael Brannigan, Presbyterian minister at Bellinglen, Co Mayo, describing his attempts to spread "England's religion" to the Turks. Presbyterians in Mayo, begod, and with Irish names, no less.

Irish involvement in the war was by no means restricted to the army (in which some 7,000 Irishmen died). There were catastrophic naval losses from Irish villages with strong maritime traditions. Upper Aghada in Cork, which had a pre-Famine male population of 97, lost 54 men in the Crimea. Whitegate's male population in 1841 was 513: 110 men died in the Crimea. Farsid's male population of 98 lost 44.

Nor was it an entirely male affair: large numbers of Irish nuns served as nurses in the Crimea, to the intense chagrin of Florence Nightingale, who refused to work with them. As a result, the Irish nuns ran their own hospital at Balaclava where the death rates were far lower than for those in Nightingale's more famous hospital in Scutari. Nightingale, however, was an indefatigable self-publicist; thus her name is world renowned, but that of the more efficient and self-effacing Sister M. Francis Bridgeman has vanished entirely.

Official history

And in that regard, she is at one with almost the entire Irish contingent who served in this appalling, purposeless war nearly 150 years ago. Yet their fate, their sacrifice, their heroism, were consigned from the pages of Irish history, while Ireland's official history instead celebrated an almost bloodless escapade outside Widow McCormack's cottage in Tipperary a few years before.

Such a work as this has long been overdue. If a better, more myth-demolishing historical study appears this year, it will be a very good year indeed.