First World War eulogy crosses the line between history and propaganda

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Letters, Letters, Volume 16, World War I

Sir,

—As a subscriber and regular reader of History Ireland I was veryperturbed by the article ‘Brotherhood among Irishmen? The Battle ofWijtschate-Messines Ridge, June 1917’ by Tom Burke, MBE, chairman ofthe Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, which appeared in theSeptember/October issue of History Ireland, and particularly by theloose editorial standards applied to the printing of it.
I must take exception to the description by HI of the battle in itseditorial lead-in as ‘when loyal Ulstermen and Irish nationalistsfought side by side for the last time against a common enemy’. Sincewhen was Germany an ‘enemy’ of nationalist Ireland? What had Germanyever done to Ireland to become its ‘enemy’? My understanding of Germanrelations with nationalist Ireland prior to Britain’s declaration ofwar in 1914 is that they were overwhelmingly positive and friendly. Itwas German scholars who rediscovered and codified the grammatical basisof the Gaelic language. Also, nationalist labour leaders Connolly andLarkin considered Germany socially far in advance of Britain and as theprogressive power involved in that war. And didn’t the 1916Proclamation refer positively to the Germans as our ‘gallant allies inEurope’?
Mr Burke extols the feats of arms of the southern and Ulster divisionsin jointly fighting the ‘common enemy’ in that appalling imperialistbloodbath. His ecstatic writings on this common ‘sacrifice’ have led toa well-earned MBE, but what of his statement that ‘Willie Redmonddreamed of building a new Ireland, a nation at peace with itself andits neighbours’? This is historically simply untrue. Redmond was weddedto the idea of Ireland as a partner in Britain’s world empire andbenefiting from that arrangement, as well as helping to administer it.The only neighbour with whom he wanted Ireland to live in peace wasBritain. With all others he would have Ireland at war where theexigencies of empire demanded. His vision for Ireland was one of ‘WestBritain’.
I have no problem commemorating the Irishmen who died in the slaughterof the First World War (several relatives of my own were involved). Butcommemoration is the key word here, and where this becomes a eulogisingof the ‘cause’ for which they fought—the British Empire—then a line hasbeen crossed where ‘commemoration’ is no longer the issue. In talkingof ‘common cause’ and the ‘common enemy’ Tom Burke crosses that lineand becomes a partisan in a very bloody enterprise indeed.
Finally, I would like to take issue with the editorial policy inrelation to the publishing of photographs accompanying the article. AmI the only one who finds them deeply offensive? These propagandaphotographs of Irish soldiers celebrating victory by play-acting in thestolen uniform parts of dead or captured German soldiers are includedwithout any editorial comment. I can only imagine the objections thatwould ensue had the photos been of German soldiers celebrating avictory in a similar manner and had they been reprinted free ofeditorial comment putting them in historical perspective for what theyare.

—Yours etc.,
PHILIP O’CONNOR
Howth
Dublin 13

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