Remembering the First World War, Ireland and historians

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2016), Platform, Volume 24

By Thomas O’Loughlin

On 9 September there fell the centenary of Tom Kettle’s death at Ginchy ‘on the Somme’. Kettle was, among other things, a poet, a lawyer, a member of parliament and an academic: just the sort of person that any new state needs to provide management and leadership. Then we think again of his death and that of thousands like him—Ireland has had a variety of ‘lost generations’—and remark ‘What a waste!’ It is all the more poignant in that Kettle belonged to the group who followed John Redmond in 1914, but by the summer of 1916 he was deeply troubled by the executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising and returned to the front having remarked that he would be remembered as a fool and a British officer, while the executed would be remembered as patriots. Once again it is easy to remark how prescient he was! For most of that century, those who served in the British Army were studiously ignored by historians south of the border, while the Easter leaders’ memories grew to mythic proportions. For people who identified themselves as ‘Irish’, it appeared that it was not ‘our war’. And, after all, was not the First World War the paradigm of the foolishness of war, often described in terms of madness—did not Lloyd George say no less in his War memoirs (1933), did not a Tory grandee, Alan Clark, summarise its stupidity in The donkeys (1961), and have not a range of thinkers presented it as an imperialist squabble, with people duped by cultures of deference and ‘the lie of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’? So, on this reckoning, Kettle had a prophetic insight and awakening shortly before his death, but mistaken loyalty or stubbornness or whatever made him leave his wife and baby daughter to go back to his men and be killed in one of the many battles subsumed under the heading of ‘the Somme’.

This forgetting by historians was compounded when those who did write about the war were not thought of as Irish. The most interesting case is that of Cyril Falls (1888–1971). Born in Dublin, he was one of the finest military historians of the generation who fought in the war, becoming one of the ‘official historians’, and a master of explaining military history to those who were not soldiers. His 1922 history of the Ulster Division is a model of its kind and is still well worth reading. Few recall that Falls—who had a prodigious output—also considered himself an Irish historian in such books as Elizabeth’s Irish wars (1950) or the posthumous The birth of Ulster (1973).

Above: The grave of Willie Redmond near Locre Hospice Cemetery—still separated from the rest of his comrades.

Above: The grave of Willie Redmond near Locre Hospice Cemetery—still separated from the rest of his comrades.

But that was then. Now the Irish who fought are remembered, as we see the need to include all our differing histories in a history of Ireland. Yes, much has changed. When in 1992—long before the Good Friday Agreement—Tom Johnstone’s Orange, green and khaki and Terence Denman’s Ireland’s unknown soldiers were published, they were seen as almost erratic, the work of devotees rather than mainline historians. Gradually more works appeared, and now—all of us awash with centenaries—one cannot keep up with the volume of publications! It seems that one could almost play ‘Snap’: for every book written by Irish historians on nationalist struggle, there is one on Ireland’s part in the Great War. This is to be welcomed; every country has those parts of its history that it is easier to ignore, and when a bypassed aspect of a country’s memory is revived we are all the richer. But before we congratulate ourselves on a job well done and imagine that historians have done one of their tasks—helping people to understand their ‘now’ in terms of where they have come from—we should consider a few points.

The need to communicate in a variety of media, to produce the usable sound-bite or tweet, puts a value on simplification that is destructive of our investigations into the complexity of Irish history. To locate the history of, for instance, the Connaught Rangers in the larger social picture of the early twentieth century is a far more difficult undertaking than for an average English county regiment, e.g. the Norfolks, but whereas the English regiment will be seen as an integral part of that locality’s history, that of the Irish regiment is seen as a sideline. Historians have a duty to the complexity of the past. Similarly, one cannot write the history of 1916 without reference to the larger conflict and vice versa; but often the depths of these links are not explored. It is as if one could write both histories in parallel columns—in the manner of compiling a chronicle—with a few cross-links and intersections. But does such an approach do justice to the evidence and to the fact that the links are deeply embedded? How many of those who were killed in Dublin in 1916 had close relatives, usually brothers, in the British Army (Éamonn Ceannt is an obvious example), and how many who were killed while in the army had brothers who fought that army between 1916 and 1921? Identity is as complex as any individual’s life or family story—and it is often the extent to which that complexity is explored that is the test of history-writing.

The First World War itself is anything but a simple affair. Some wars are relatively simple, but not that one. It directly changed everything, from monarchs’ crowns to whether a lady could be seen in trousers, but many recent books portray it as masses of idiots in a slogging match. A generation of historians has grown up knowing that Oh what a lovely war! says more about the late 1960s than 1916. Equally, military history is a special branch of the profession as demanding as any other, but authors who would not touch economic history or the history of science blunder in: some pictures of mud, trenches, a rhomboidal tank, one 180x120mm map of the Western Front and they are off! They might just read someone like Falls to see how it should be done, or Corrigan’s Mud, blood and poppycock (2004) to see the traps into which they are falling.

Above: Wytschaet Cemetery—the grave of James O’Loughlin (the writer’s great-uncle), a regular soldier from County Clare killed in early 1915. His brothers would fight in the War of Independence and in the Civil War (on both sides).

Above: Wytschaet Cemetery—the grave of James O’Loughlin (the writer’s great-uncle), a regular soldier from County Clare killed in early 1915. His brothers would fight in the War of Independence and in the Civil War (on both sides).

But surely those Irishmen who fought were all duped? In reply, I might ask whether that applies to all, in each fight, and to both sides. Men like Kettle were not fools and clearly believed that they had a duty to do as they did: not to respect that and seek out its rationale is to falsify memory, just as ignoring them did. Likewise, ‘they ran off to the army to escape poverty’—a trope already found in Seán O’Casey—ignores complexity: there were other flights from poverty and there were those who did not flee. What made Billy McFadzean save his friends on 1 July 1916 cannot be explained by conditioning. To imagine that any aspect of the Great War can be ‘neatly summed up’ is folly; to think that one can do so from the perspective of Irish involvement is ridiculous.

Why this matters is that history is never a matter of dates and the past. Life is lived forwards but understood backwards (Kierkegaard), and historians who do not grapple with, and present, that complexity are contributing to a false view of the complexity of Irish identity today.

Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.


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