In some respects the amnesia which once characterised Irish memory of the Great War has been bookended by two plays, O'Casey's "The Silver Tassie" and "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme" by Frank McGuinness. The former, inter alia, highlighted the inconvenient truth of working class Irish participation in World War 1. The rapidly developing nationalist narrative of the late 1920s did not permit of any such recognition, hence the rejection of the play by Yeats and the Abbey Theatre. The play ran counter to the nation's foundation mythology. It acknowledged a phenomenon whose memory was required to be quietly erased from the Irish collective unconscious. So successful was this process that, a generation later we didn't even know that we didn't know. "We were never told" was the mantra of Frank McGuinness, when he came to write his drama about the slaughter of the men of the 36th Ulster Division on 1 July 1916 on the Somme. The play (premiered by a very different Abbey to the one which had rejected the Tassie) contributed enormously to the process of re-integrating Great War memory into the Irish psyche.
In some respects this collection of RTÉ archive material is a microcosm of that Irish psyche. RTÉ (in the shape of 2RN) dates from the year prior to the Silver Tassie controversy. Its archive reflects Irish preoccupations. Its omissions point towards our blind spots. On the debit side is the fact that, as a repository of oral history the RTÉ catalogue includes barely thirty first-hand Irish witnesses of the First World War. On the merit side is the fact that it includes all of thirty first-hand witnesses of the Great War in a time of calculated and culpable amnesia.
Bronze and silver stars go to the likes of Jim Fahy, Cathal O'Shannon and Joe Little for their efforts to explore the silhouetted history of Ireland and the Great War. The gold medal goes to radio producer Kieran Sheedy who interviewed more than twenty veterans in his compilation of "The Irish Brigades in the First World War". His field tapes constitute more than half of the mechanically recorded oral history of the period. For a writer of two books on the subject they were an invaluable resource, just as they are when reproduced on this website.
There are a couple of noteworthy and pleasant revelations in this collection. One is former Northern Correspondent Jim Dougal's news report in 1976 on the return of octogenarian former members of the 36th Ulster Division to the Somme. But the single most beguiling and unexpected surprise was Peter Kennerley's 1966 TV documentary "And in the Morning". Here septuagenarian southerners relive and remember their Great War experiences. What is almost astonishing about the programme is the date of its production. As a child in the Ireland of 1966 I, and most others, were focused on an entirely different 50th anniversary celebration that year. Thanks to the work of the likes of Paddy Harte, Glen Barr, Kevin Myers, Tom Hartley and Tom Burke of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association (and numerous others), there is an excellent chance that the 100th anniversaries of the Easter Rising and the carnage of the Somme will both be appropriately and prominently commemorated in 2016.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.
Jack Campbell's outstanding memory of the war is the loyalty of his comrades to the cause and the oath.
Edgar Poulter recalls being told by an officer that mules were more valuable than men, as dead men could easily be replaced, but mules were scarce.
A veteran of the Irish Guards recalls hearing about the rebellion in Ireland while stationed in Essex.
This veteran recalls being simply fed up by the time it was all over.
A veteran tries to convey how the end of the war felt almost matter of fact.
A veteran of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers tells how he was injured in a shell explosion at Oppy Wood which killed his three companions.
Few soldiers survived the war unscathed. Jimmy O'Brien of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers describes how he was shot in battle at Ypres.
Jack King describes horrific scenes of dead soldiers being buried on battlefileds only for the corpses to be blown up again later.
Veterans of the Ulster Division prepare to leave Belfast to attend a commemoration at Thiepval.
Emmet Dalton believes it is impossible to know if Ireland paid too high a price for participating in the war.
Jack Campbell describes the frightening experience of being gassed at the Somme.
The local women were another attraction, though the unwary soldier could find himself in some trouble for straying out of bounds.
Denis Kelly describes the conditions endured by troops at the front in return for seven shillings a week.
During wartime, extreme measures were sometimes undertaken by light fingered troops who wanted to sample the local wines, as Major Walter Joyce of the Irish Guards tells Jim Fahy.
Colonel E.H. de Stacpoole talks about how hard it was to keep the water out of the trenches in Flanders, which were prone to flooding.
On hearing of the outbreak of a rebellion in Dublin in 1916 Emmet Dalton says that he and his fellow soldiers, "Were surpised, annoyed and we thought that it was madness."
Veterans of the First World War discuss how they felt when they heard that there had been an armed rising in Ireland in 1916.
A veteran describes going over the top at the Battle of Messines Ridge, 7 June 1917, just after the British Army had detonated 19 massive mines. In the confusion he came across some terrified German troops.
Jimmy O'Brien recalls seeing tanks for the first time in 1916 at Beaumont Hamel and how seven hundred men were lost in the battle.
A veteran describes a night raid across the River Struma, which formed the Macedonian front line between Greece and Bulgaria.
The British invasion of Gallipoli in Turkey proved to be disastrous. The Lansdowne Pals found themselves in the thick of it. Edgar Poulter describes conditions at Chocolate Hill.
The early battles in France were fought in open country. Jack Campbell describes the retreat from Mons.
Discipline could be harsh in the British Army, Jack King, who fought in the Royal Irish Regiment, outlines strong measures used to stiffen the nerves of the troops.
Sean King, who had been stationed in India before the war, relates how members of the British Army found themselves unprepared for the new forms of warfare unleashed in 1914.
Irish troops fighting at Mons in August 1914 soon found themselves making a desperate retreat. Cavalry trooper E.H. de Stacpoole describes losing his own horse and finding a replacement.
Denis Kelly a veteran of the Irish Guards explains how he ended up joining the army in 1914 when he was living in England.
A veteran Royal Dublin Fusilier, Jimmy O'Brien, recalls joining the British Army in an office in Grafton Street, Dublin.
Edgar Poulter recalls heading to Lansdowne Road, Dublin, with friends to join what would become known as a pals battalion and paying half a crown for the privilege.
A desire to see something of the world prompted Jack Campbell to join the British Army. Jack tells Gay Byrne how he was influenced by his elder brother.
Emmet Dalton outlines his reasons for joining up and describes the initial reaction of his father to seeing his son in a British Army uniform.
Emmet Dalton talks about his experiences at the Battle of the Somme.
Johnny Burke talks about his experiences during the First World War including a heavy defeat to the Turks in the Mesopotamian campaign. During a break in the fighting to bury the dead Johnny recalls meeting with Turkish soldiers.
Jack Campbell talks about life in the trenches, the fear of going over the top, going hungry and the danger of rats.
Dr Charles Dickson returns to the site of the Battle of the Somme and recalls the horrors he witnessed fifty years earlier.
In this extract from the 1966 documentary 'And in the Morning', men who served in the First World War give their reasons for enlisting.