Belfast Boys: how Unionists and Nationalists fought and died together in the First World War

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Reviews, Volume 18, World War I

Richard S. Grayson
(Continuum Books, £25)
ISBN 9781847250087


76_small_1265290963Richard Grayson’s Belfast Boys is the latest addition to a small but growing number of popular and academic books on the Irish experience of the Great War, a subject that just ten years ago was ignored by all but a handful of pioneers. In essence, the book tells the story of ‘West Belfast at the front’, and the author maintains that he has used ‘a new method for studying the First World War’ and written a ‘military history that begins in the street rather than the trench’. On the face of it, these seem like quite bold claims, and recent books by Roger Chickering and Benjamin Ziemann on the war experiences of German communities indicate that Grayson is not the first historian to adopt such an approach. In the context of the history of the United Kingdom, however, the methodology employed in Belfast Boys is a genuine innovation. By looking at the war record of men from a particular urban district, as opposed to the men of a given regiment or division, Grayson raises the possibility of exploring the ways in which the male members of a small, working-class Irish community experienced a major European conflict.
The Northern Irishmen who served in the Great War have traditionally been associated with the UVF-influenced 36th (Ulster) Division and with that division’s determined gains, and terrible losses, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. One of the results of Grayson’s novel approach is that it allows him to move away from this narrow association of war service with unionism and demonstrate the diversity of West Belfast’s experience of the war. During the course of the conflict, Protestant and Catholic soldiers from the Falls, the Shankill and the surrounding streets found themselves fighting and dying in every theatre of war and in virtually every conceivable branch of the British armed forces.
Yet despite Grayson’s original and potentially very useful methodology, much of the book is filled with the sort of interesting but straightforward narrative detail that one finds in more conventional regimental histories, and little is offered in the way of argument or critical evaluation. The author dispenses with this highly descriptive approach in the last two chapters, however, where he considers the depth of the impact of the war on West Belfast as a community, both in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice and in the decades since. The penultimate chapter, ‘Peace and Partition’, gives a vivid picture of the upheaval that greeted soldiers when they began returning home in 1919 and reminds us that many of them simply exchanged a foreign battleground for a domestic one and resumed fighting, either for the British government or the IRA. In the final chapter Grayson gives an insightful account of the memory and understanding of the conflict in Belfast from the 1920s to the present day and writes of his own experiences of discussing the war with republicans and unionists in the modern-day city.
Until very recently, the memory of the Great War remained an object of territorial possession in Ireland. This was particularly the case in the north-east, where for unionists the Battle of the Somme held, and continues to hold, an almost sacred significance. From the unionist perspective, the blood of the men from the loyal tradition who died on the Western Front and elsewhere purchased the right of the six counties to remain within the United Kingdom. Nationalist memory of the war, as Grayson points out, has always been a more complex business. In the inter-war period it tended to be either forgotten or private and family-orientated; from the 1960s on it was increasingly overlooked, as nationalist war veterans died off and their sons and daughters refused to identify with a past that involved fighting in defence of British interests. By the 1980s the Northern Ireland conflict had given rise to an intense cultural entrenchment in which the sort of conciliatory gestures of commemoration and inclusion that are relatively common today would have been unthinkable.
Beginning in the mid-’90s, and especially since the turn of the new century, nationalists from a variety of different political faiths have begun to rediscover the involvement of men from their communities in the epic campaigns of the Great War. The unionist response to this rediscovery has been mixed and occasionally hostile, but unionist leaders have shown themselves capable of relinquishing their ownership of both memory and commemoration of the war and entering into a spirit of reconciliation. What has thus emerged in the last decade or so is an ironic but positive situation in which popular interest in a war that was unprecedented in its violence and destruction has allowed people from both sides of the northern divide to focus on a shared history and slowly move beyond the violence of the much more recent past. This willingness to find common ground and move forward through remembrance has clearly played a role in the imperfect but essentially stable peace process. By writing an accessible and even-handed account of the wartime experiences of the men of West Belfast, Richard Grayson has made a small but valuable contribution to that process.  HI

Edward Madigan is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland Fellow and Associate Director at the Centre for War Studies, Trinity College, Dublin.


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