Our War: Ireland and the Great War

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Volume 17, World War I

John Horne (ed.)
(Royal Irish Academy, €30/£25)
ISBN 9781904890508
Thomas Davis Lectures, RTÉ Radio 1, 10 Nov. 2008–12 Jan. 2009
www.rte.ie/radio1/ourwar

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The combined authority of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and the Thomas Davis Lecture series is considerable. If one could only nominate two institutions that have sustained cultural values in Ireland through thick and thin then these would be leading candidates. How much more powerful are they, then, when they act together, as they did recently with Diarmuid Ferriter’s Judging Dev, a book that strained the publishing resources of the Academy to the limit, only partly because of the incomprehensible decision of a Fianna Fáil education minister to send a copy to every school in Ireland. Has the Academy decided to balance the ticket by publishing this book, or has it realised (as university history departments have always known) that the public appetite for Irish history is virtually insatiable, especially when the history acknowledges the sophistication of its audience? Many other variant questions arise. Should the RIA be distracted from its main purpose of concentrating on high and unpopular scholarship by unexpectedly finding itself in the best-seller lists? Predictably, one’s instinct is to welcome this outbreak of populism while hoping that standards and core objectives will not be lost in the process. Moreover, the first time in the best-seller lists may be accidental, but a second time smacks of planning.
Our War, even as a successor to the massive success of the de Valera collection, is brilliantly chosen. We often forget that many Irish historians spend their careers working on non-Irish subjects—that the activity of being a historian in Ireland doesn’t always involve an exclusive concentration on the history of Ireland. Otherwise we might be an insular culture. A case in point is editor John Horne. His work, especially in collaboration with Alan Kramer, has changed the way historians everywhere understand aspects of the Great War. Now he has organised a kind of public seminar, in the tradition of the Thomas Davis Lectures, on Ireland’s relationship with the war. Apart from the footnoted texts of the radio talks (podcasts available on the RTÉ website), there is a more permanent record in this book, but one which goes beyond it by providing an enormous collection of visual images to supplement the texts of the lectures. This visual history is very ambitious in scope, not to say innovative, because it suggests the many media through which the recent past might be approached. The editors are trying, and inevitably failing, to create a visual lexicon for history. But this must be done, and they are breaking new ground. After all, the first mechanised global killing machine was also recorded by new technologies of mass production. This is why we possess these haunting images of the soon-to-be-dead, now mourned in a ritualised but still guilty process of commemoration.

The enormous collection of images in this collection breaks new ground.

The enormous collection of images in this collection breaks new ground.

Despite all this, the book fails to puncture the insularity that its editor has never ceased to challenge. The title itself is problematic. While obviously appealing to a wider audience than, say, the Academy’s Hiberno-Latin dictionary, is it really necessary to apply a possessive pronoun to a war which was global in scale and which destroyed empires and undermined European dominance of the world, quite apart from unleashing Lenin? Despite the fact that Horne’s introduction is impeccable, even magisterial, and that all of the contributors are being highly professional, the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together. Horne tells us that the war was never a single socially or politically accepted truth in Ireland or anywhere else, largely because the war itself changed the world and destroyed most of the regimes who declared war. To paraphrase him, the war we started was not the war we got, and by its end the pre-war world was in ruins. And yet, despite this scintillating introduction, what transpires is professional and interesting but rather pedestrian—what one colleague calls the view from ‘planet Ireland’. Why in particular do our war historians seem to read only Irish or British history? Could we not understand our war more fully if we were less insular or, dare it be said, more open to other languages and histories?
As one might expect from two great institutions, all essays/lectures were unimpeachable. Most impressive were the contributions by the historians of women’s history. There is a house style in Irish women’s history that consists in calm and professional revelation of neglected evidence. The First World War is a good case in point, although one must sympathise with the problem that the great liberating force for women in Britain—relatively highly paid work in munitions factories—was denied to the Irish part of the UK by the refusal of the imperial government to establish more than a token number of munitions factories in Ireland, despite the urgings of Irish MPs. As David Fitzpatrick mischievously pointed out, it was a good war for the Irish farmer. And yet somehow the Irish woman generally emerged from the war in a more liberated state than her mother. Opposition to the war? Opposition to war itself? A desire for change? This gap might also be in some part a result of the absent part of this history, namely the Irish Revolution. Sometimes it is Hamlet without the prince. Imagine reading a history of Russia in the Great War without a chapter on the revolution.

‘We kill all our own’—John Redmond as butcher, one of the few anti-war images in this collection. (NLI)

‘We kill all our own’—John Redmond as butcher, one of the few anti-war images in this collection. (NLI)

Of course the Irish revolution cannot compare with the Russian revolution, but it must be understood. Even more important is the absence of any real consideration of the anti-war movement, largely mobilised by separatist nationalism for its own ends but not only inspired by Sinn Féin. Horne says some really important things about the duty of the historian to be sceptical about public memory; his contributors have performed well within their narrowed compasses. Perhaps he ought to have written the whole book. HI

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.

‘Sacrafice’—stained glass window in St Philip’s Church of Ireland, Dartry, Dublin. (Sonia Gyles)

‘Sacrafice’—stained glass window in St Philip’s Church of Ireland, Dartry, Dublin. (Sonia Gyles)

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