Dispensing with the airbrush

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Editorial, Issue 4 (July/August 2011), Volume 19, World War I

In his thoughtful reflection on the recent visit of Queen Elizabeth II (pp 10–11) Edward Madigan observes that ‘there was also a popular understanding of the Irish Revolution and the First World War as separate, only very tenuously connected events’. Jérôme aan de Wiel’s article in this issue (pp 32–5) reinforces that ‘connectedness’. Misperceptions of intent, in particular the German belief that the United Kingdom would remain neutral in the event of a European war, has regularly featured on schoolboys’ and girls’ lists of the causes of the First World War, but rarely has the ‘Irish factor’ been taken into account. Yet that works in the other direction: Ireland has been somewhat isolated from the historiographical debate on the First World War. The interpretation of the Treaty of Versailles, that Germany and its allies were responsible and would be made to pay for it, was increasingly challenged in the interwar years by a critique of the imperial system—that all the major powers were equally responsible. That in turn was challenged by Fischer in the 1960s, who argued that Germany’s war aims were indeed aggressive and expansionist, although that’s hardly surprising since Germany had come late to the imperial table—Britain and France already had the world: Germany wanted it.
Common to all interpretations is a recognition of the catastrophic nature of the conflict and, indeed, its futility—this was not ‘the war to end all wars’, nor was it fought for the rights of small nations, as we in Ireland know only too well. The First World War involved more combatants and casualties than all subsequent conflicts in Ireland combined, and it is important that the sacrifices of those who fell, of whatever tradition, are remembered. We should also, however, distinguish between the lions who fell and the donkeys who misled them—and not just on the battlefield. Those who joined up were told by their leaders that they were fighting for Home Rule, against Home Rule, for the rights of small nations, for king and country, that the war would be over by Christmas, etc., etc.—anything, as long as they joined up.
Edward Madigan reminds us that one group of Irish combatants does not have to be remembered at the expense of another. Neither should they be remembered uncritically. Discussion of Ireland’s part in the First World War is now firmly in the public domain: having dispensed with the airbrush, we should ensure that it is not replaced with a whitewash.

Tommy Graham


6 Palmerston Place, Dublin 7



Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568