They Shall Grow Not Old: Irish Soldiers and the Great War, Myles Dungan. (Four Courts Press, £17.95) ISBN 1851823476

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 1998), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 6

This is a ‘popular’ rather than an academic work. The author states at the outset that it is ‘designed merely to keep before the public eye a neglected area of historical research and evaluation and to bring some more anecdotal material into the public domain in an edited, organised and palatable form’ (p.9). By academic standards, Dungan’s book is far from satisfactory. His primary sources rely solely on archival material from the Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum and Australian War Memorial and oral history sources held by the Somme Association and RTÉ. Thus chapter four, ‘“Shell Shocked”: the psychological effects of the Great War’, in which he discusses the ‘shot at dawn’ courts martial cases, is particularly weak. Records relating to these cases were released by the Public Record Office in London as long ago as 1993 and one would have thought that the author should have consulted these official transcripts, rather than endlessly citing J. Putkowski and J. Sykes, Shot at Dawn: executions in World War One by authority of the British Army Act (London 1989).
The secondary source material used is equally inadequate. Modern work, essential to a proper understanding of Ireland and the Great War—such as: D. Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921: provincial experience of war and revolution (Dublin 1977); D. Fitzpatrick (ed.), Ireland and the First World War (Dublin 1988); T. P. Dooley, Irishmen or English Soldiers?: the times and world of a Southern Catholic Irishman (1876-1916) enlisting in the British Army during the First World War (Liverpool 1995); and numerous articles by P. Callan, T. Denman, and M. Staunton, which have appeared in The Irish Sword since the early 1980s—are omitted. Likewise, some of the more important post-war regimental histories, such as C. Falls, A History of the First Seven Battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles (Aldershot 1925), are absent from Dungan’s bibliography.
The subject for this book is indeed one that demands more attention. However, Dungan’s approach is rather unfocused. There is no real attempt to link the experience of Irish soldiers with that of their British, much less European, counterparts and important recent works on the British Army in World War I, for example, I.F.W. Beckett and K. Simpson (eds.), A Nation in Arms: a social study of the British Army in the First World War (Manchester 1985) are again omitted from the bibliography. Consideration of Irishmen in the ANZAC forces (chapter five) is poorly researched (even ignoring A. Thomson, ANZAC Memories: living with the legend [Oxford 1994]) and lacks rationale, since there is no similar assessment of the role of Irishmen in the Canadian Expeditionary Force or the United States Army.
Disappointingly little is said about the actions of the 36th. (Ulster) Division. Given that, by war’s end, this was the only ‘Irish’ division left in the British Army (the 10th. [Irish] Division having been ‘Indianised’ in April 1918 and the 16th. [Irish] Division reconstituted with non-Irish battalions after the German spring offensive of 1918) this seems a strange oversight. Despite Dungan’s protestations to the contrary, his earlier, Irish Voices from the Great War (Dublin 1996), also made little reference to this formation. One can only pose two scenarios as to why the contribution of Ulstermen to the British Army in the Great War (and, we should remember, that about half of the 150,000 Irish recruits to the armed forces between 1914 and 1918 came from Ulster) is overlooked in this fashion. Either the political agenda of this work is to rehabilitate the memory of the Southern Irish soldier at the expense of his Northern counterpart, or the prospect of primary research in the regimental museums and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland was considered too demanding.
The most important role of the book will be to raise the question of where our study of Ireland and the First World War proceeds from here. Study of Irish soldiers in this conflict is by no means exhausted. If, as Dungan hopes, his book spurs someone to examine the Great War and modern Irish memory (a topic on which Keith Jeffrey and Jane Leonard have already published valuable articles), one can only hope that it may encourage others to investigate the impact of the war on the Irish home front.
Having said all this, as a ‘popular’ history Dungan’s work has many good points: it is written in a lively and witty style; it brings material from P. Callan’s and M. Staunton’s, as yet unpublished, PhD and MA theses and the almost inaccessible RTÉ sound archives to the attention of a wider public; and despite a few typographical errors, this is generally a well produced book, at the very reasonable price.

Timothy Bowman


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