Most Irish people would be surprised to learn that an estimated , Irishmen served in the British army. The silence in our history books about the 50, dead is sorrowing. My first insight into the Irish in the first world war was through the eyes of the fictional character, Willie Dunne. It was fiction that taught me the facts of Irish history. Sylvester survived the war, but not the consequences of it.
Irish Regiments of the British Army in World War I Photographic Collection [graphic]
His wife died in September from meningitis. She had helped keep his shellshock at bay and he was entirely dependent on her support. He had lived with the noise of shelling in his head and the lingering taste of poison gas for 20 raw years. On the back of a photograph of him taken after the war, are the words, "Dad died. My grandmother did not tell her children about the circumstances of her father's death and his service in the first world war until she was in her 70s.
She did not want anyone to think badly of the father she loved. His final resting place lies outside Eccles near Manchester. In that brutal intimacy at the front, did he show it to Sylvester, his fellow soldier in the Dublin Fusiliers?
I dedicate this to my grandmother, who lost her father because of the war. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics First world war. Ireland Europe features. Reuse this content. Order by newest oldest recommendations.
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Hide notes Widespread public revulsion at the executions exacerbated a growing alienation from the British administration in Ireland. Perhaps the most difficult process was that faced by those nationalist volunteers in the British army who had set off, fired by John Redmond's claim that 'Ireland's highest interests' lay 'in the speedy and overwhelming victory of England and the Allies'. Having helped raise what he described as 'a distinctively Irish army, composed of Irishmen, led by Irishmen and trained at home in Ireland', Redmond asserted in the middle of the war that 'the achievements of that Irish army have covered Ireland with glory before the world'.
But by the time the survivors of the war returned home, words like these had turned into empty rhetoric.
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It was as Tom Kettle, a former nationalist MP who was killed on the Somme serving with the 16th Division, had predicted. So it was to be.
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Many veterans returning to nationalist areas met grudging acceptance, hostility, or even physical violence. For all of them the high public honour and celebration with which they had departed contrasted sharply with the changed circumstances of their return. The disillusionment which, across the world, many returning soldiers felt with the outcome of the war, that the prodigious costs had not been matched by commensurate benefits, was felt especially sharply in nationalist Ireland. It was, reported the press, 'a notable demonstration of the part played by Belfast nationalists' in the war.
Joe Devlin, MP for West Belfast, declared that their fallen comrades had 'died not as cowards died, but as soldiers of freedom, with their faces toward the fire, and in the belief that their life-blood was poured out in defence of liberty for the world. Unfortunately,' he continued, 'the close of the war brought to Ireland no peace and freedom, but strife and repression. By this stage the great mass of Catholic, nationalist Irishmen who had volunteered and served in the war had virtually been forgotten, in a sort of Irish 'national amnesia'.
Their history and their experiences did not fit in with either the republican legacy of southern Ireland or the unionist tradition of the North.
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But 30 years later, on the 80th anniversary of the armistice, 11 November , the President of Ireland and Queen Elizabeth II together dedicated a memorial at Messines to all the Irish people who had fallen in World War One. This 'Island of Ireland Peace Tower' was conceived as a device to assist political and social reconciliation. The hope is that, by recovering the memory of the common suffering of all sorts of Irish - Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist - in World War One, the peace process in contemporary Northern Ireland, aiming to heal its equivalent shared suffering, might markedly be advanced.
And if it does this, then surely the Irish fallen of World War One may not have died in vain.
Ireland and World War I
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