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Ireland and the First World War

It was a sunny afternoon in Dublin for the dedication at Glasnevin Cemetery of a Commonwealth War Graves’ Commission Cross of Sacrifice. The impressive ceremony was attended by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, and HRH the Duke of Kent. A band composed of musicians from the Irish and British Armies provided the musical accompaniment as the colours of both nations were displayed.

I felt privileged to be in attendance for such an important event, symbolising as it did the great improvements in Ireland’s relations with the United Kingdom. In a cemetery associated with Ireland's patriot dead, this new monument also represents an important symbolic reflection of changed Irish attitudes towards the First World War.

President Higgins delivered a powerful speech stressing the importance of ensuring that the First World War and those whose lives it claimed should not be left ‘as a blank space in Irish history.’ He spoke of a greater awareness in recent years of ‘the complexity of Irish engagement’ with World War 1, which has allowed for ‘a more inclusive remembering at public level.’ The President urged that we all ‘cultivate memory as a tool for the living and as a sure base for the future – memory employed in the task of building peace.’

The Irish memory of World War 1 has always been complicated by the fact that the founding moment of the independent Irish State occurred during the war, but not on the Somme or at Gallipoli. It took place in Dublin with the Easter Rising of 1916. This means that memories of the Western Front have had to vie with those of Dublin's General Post Office for the attention of the Irish public. And Easter 1916, a specifically Irish event directly connected with the emergence of our independent State, naturally won.

Growing up in the Ireland of the 1960s, I was aware that my paternal grandfather had been a veteran of our war of independence. I also recall knowing a great uncle on my mother's side who had fought in British uniform on the Somme.

One hundred years after its outbreak, it is now possible to cast a calm eye on Irish involvement in the war. The first thing to be said is that Irish participation was extensive. The numbers of Irish combatants and fatalities are uncertain, because many Irishmen joined non-Irish regiments in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, while the Irish regiments often contained soldiers not born in Ireland. What is clear is that several hundred thousand Irishmen fought in the war and perhaps between 40,000 and 50,000 died. Many more would have been wounded or traumatised by the conflict.

When war broke out, there were some 8 Irish regiments containing 30,000 soldiers and an equal number of reservists who were part of the regular British army. Men from these units formed part of the British Expeditionary Force dispatched to France in August 1914, where they saw service in the Battle of Mons and later at the Marne, one of the war's defining early battles. By the end of 1914, it is estimated that at least 8,000 Irishmen - from the Dublin, Iniskilling & Munster Fusiliers, from the Royal Irish Regiment and the Royal Irish Rifles - had already died on Europe's battlefields.

Most of the Irish who fought and died in the war were not regular soldiers, but men from all parts of Ireland and all political creeds who volunteered for service during the war, for conscription was never introduced in Ireland. In early August 1914, mass Irish participation in the war could not have been guaranteed, for Ireland was in a state of tension on account of divisions between nationalists and unionists over Irish Home Rule. Until late July 1914, Britain was preoccupied with the Irish Home Rule crisis rather than the fallout from the assassinations in Sarajevo. In Ireland, a sense of grievance ran high about the manner in which Home Rule had been blocked and, on 29 July 1914, 200,000 people turned out in Dublin for the funerals of four civilians killed by British soldiers a few days earlier.

As soon as war was declared, the Irish parliamentary party leader John Redmond gave his full backing to the British war effort and urged his followers to enlist for service. Redmond felt genuine admiration for the heroism of the Belgian people and believed there was no sacrifice 'which Ireland would not be willing to make to come to their assistance.' Many Irish nationalists answered Redmond's call to arms for the defence of Catholic Belgium.

Once the war settled into its grim stride, three Irish Divisions were deployed - the 10th, the 16th and the 36th. The 10th Irish Division suffered huge casualties during the Dardanelles campaign, losing almost half of its 17,000 men, and also saw action in the Balkans.

1916 was a crucial year for Ireland, with the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, where the mainly Irish nationalist 16th Division and the Ulstermen of the 36th Division fought side by side.

Many prominent Irishmen were lost in battle, including Willie Redmond, brother of the nationalist leader. There were also Irish war poets, two of whom, Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge deserve a mention.

Kettle had been an MP for a number of years and in August 1914 was in Belgium trying to purchase arms for the nationalist Irish volunteers. Witnessing the invasion of Belgium and the destruction Louvain, he concluded that the war was a struggle between enlightened European values and Prussian militarism. He enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers and days before his death in September 1916 he wrote a poem to his daughter in which he explained his motivations. He assured her that he had:

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

Francis Ledwidge, a talented writer from County Meath, who admired the leaders of the Easter Rising, wrote poems from the World War battlefields as well as poems in honour those who fought in Dublin in Easter 1916. In spite of his strong nationalist sympathies, Ledwidge returned to the Western Front and was killed at Ypres in July 1917.

Perhaps the best insight into the Irish who fought in the 1914-1918 war is provided in a note left behind by Willie Redmond in which he said that: 'in joining the Irish Brigade and going to France, I sincerely believed, as all Irish soldiers do, that I was doing my best for the welfare of Ireland in every way.'

By the time the war came to an end, Ireland had undergone dramatic political change and the Irish Party was all but wiped out in the General Election of 1918 by the heirs to the Easter Rising, but that's a story for another day.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London