It is estimated that some 350,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during World War One; many were volunteers from Ireland, many more were conscripted in the UK, and more still fought in the US, Australian or Canadian armies. In all over 30,000 Irish died. While some joined up for the justice of the cause as they saw it, others were driven by different imperatives. Constitutional nationalists, for example, were committed to the war effort by their leader, John Redmond, in September 1914, on the basis that Ireland had secured home rule and as such must come to the aid of sister countries like Belgium.
Socially diverse, the Irish divisions were professional men, passionate Larkinites, peasant farmers and poets. Francis Ledwidge, who served with the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers, remarked after one battle, “It was a horrible and a great day. I would not have missed it for worlds.” The Battle of the Somme is for many Ireland’s single-most contribution to the Great War. On 1 and 2 July the 36th Ulster Division lost 5,500 men (killed, wounded and missing), and these losses had a profound impact back home.
Irish unionists and nationalists went on to fight side-by-side at the Battle of Messines, and indeed it was here that John Redmond's younger brother, Willie, was killed. It was a particularly poignant death; although over 50 years old, he had insisted on serving in the front line.
1916 would of course see another group of Irish Volunteers rise against British rule in Ireland. Led by James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, some 1,800 volunteers seized the GPO and various other major buildings in Dublin, proclaimed an Irish republic, and held out for a week. The subsequent executions of 15 leading rebels, including Pearse and Connolly, led to widespread public revulsion which, in tandem with threats of the introduction of conscription, ultimately led to the Sinn Féin defeat of the Redmondite nationalists in the December 1918 general election.
In this new context, those nationalist volunteers lucky enough to return home from the Great War found themselves returning to a vastly changed island. There was no triumphant welcome home. The 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising was remembered with great celebrations across independent and nationalist Ireland, while the Somme was commemorated almost exclusively in Northern Ireland. By 1966, the great mass of Irishmen who had volunteered and served in the war was forgotten, lost in a no man’s land between the strong republican legacy of the Republic and the unionist tradition of the North.
It wasn’t until 30 years later, on the 80th anniversary of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, that 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. Now, on the 90th anniversary, RTÉ remembers the Irish fallen of World War One, and takes the opportunity to re-evaluate Ireland’s role in “the war to end all wars.”
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Ireland and the Great War: