Responses from the Front: The Impact of the Rising on Irish Soldiers at War
The Easter Rising took place against the backdrop of a European war in which thousands of their fellow countrymen – nationalists as well as unionists – were deeply involved. The War provided the opportunity for armed rebellion in Ireland and it framed the press and British response to it. For an overwhelmingly critical Irish press, the behaviour of rebels at home stood in stark contrast to the gallantry of those Irishmen serving in British uniform abroad. The Irish Independent was not alone in pointing up the very clear disctinction between the shame of the events on Dublin’s streets and the glory of Irish service on the western frront and Gallipoli. What’s more the ‘outpouring of Irish blood’ overseas was, it suggested, ‘as expiation for the acts of unfilial ingrates who have besmirched the honour of their native land’.
Over 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army during First World War and some 30,000 of them would not return. They enlisted for myriad reasons – out of sense of duty, economic necessity and a sense of adventure – and many did so in response to the call from the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond, who in a speech at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, in August 1914, had urged them to go ‘as far as the firing line extended in defence of right, of freedom and of religion’. Redmond added on that occasion that it would be a ‘disgrace forever to Ireland, and a reproach to her manhood’ if young Irishmen were stay home to defend the country’s shores from unlikely invasion.
So how did those Irishmen serving in British uniform, many of them of nationalist outlook, respond to news from home of the events of Easter 1916? Here, Dr Timothy Bowman of the University of Kent reflects on the limited impact of the Rising on the discipline and morale of Irish troops on the western front and the efforts of Germans soldiers to exploit the rebellion to their own advantage. Furthermore he discusses the role played Irishmen in the British army in Dublin during the Rising.
Thomas Gordon Fitzpatrick an Irish soldier from Dublin with the 8th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers was stationed in France at the time of the Easter Rising while his wife and children were at home in Dublin. Below are two letters sent home on 28 April and 1 May 1916 to his wife Ethel in which he mentions the Rising.
In this letter on 28 April Thomas writes to Ethel to say he has just heard about the 'Dublin business' and hopes Ethel and the rest of the family are all safe. He writes 'it is fearful to think of such a thing happening up in Ireland, it is disgraceful but please God it is now well in hand.'
Thomas writes again on 1 May 1916. He says he hears the 'Dublin business' is dying down, and he hopes Ethel and the children have been out of harm's way. He also mentions not receiving any letters from Ethel and he writes that he assumes Ethel has not received any of his either as he imagines the letters have been held up - we can assume this is due to the events of Easter week disrputing regular post and communication services. Later in the letter Thomas says that Ethel should hear 'our fellows' opinions on the Dublin show' and adds 'I hope they make the brutes pay for it.'