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Remembering and forgetting the remembering… April 5, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History.

…from Paraffinalia an analysis of Elaine Byrne’s piece in the Guardian on ‘the Irish who fought for Britain in the First World War’. As someone who went through the school system five years before Michael I can fully agree with his point that there was a knowledge of the Irish who fought for Britain. And the following certainly rings a bell:

Part of the nationalist narrative was that Irishmen under Redmond had been, in effect, tricked into fighting for Britain, which claimed to be defending the rights of small nations such as Belgium, and which had granted Home Rule to Ireland, though it clearly had no intention of imposing it. Whatever the validity of that narrative, it certainly did not ignore Irish involvement in the war.

The idea that The Irish National War Memorial Gardens were unknown to most is also a somewhat dubious proposition not least because as Michael notes they were a source of controversy through much of the 80s.

So not so much forgetting as perhaps not quite contextualising that history in its entirety, which is as Michael implies a distinctly different matter.


1. Michael Carley - April 5, 2014

Aw you’re very kind. I would add that the comments under Byrne’s piece in the Guardian take her thesis apart. I didn’t do Leaving Cert history so I hadn’t realized that the recommended text was Lyons (Northerner and Provost of Trinity) and he has plenty to say about Irish soldiers in the war. Far from being forgotten, it was being taught in Irish schools.


6to5against - April 5, 2014

Perhaps the great act of forgetting is to forget that all this actually was taught in schools, and I went to a CBS and I’m pretty sure my history teacher of the time (80s) would have been strongly nationalist.

I like Elaine Byrne, but this piece is awful. The fact that she didn’t know about the memorial gardens until 2011 and presents this as evidence of widespread forgetfulness is simply bizarre.


2. CL - April 5, 2014

Well it is 2014 and I suppose with the centenary of WW1 its not surprising that the conflict is receiving much attention.
But one suspects that the alleged forgetting of those who died for imperialism has more to do with remembrance of those who fought against it: the up-coming remembrance of 1916.

‘Better to die ‘neath an Irish sky,
than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar’


3. Edmundson - April 5, 2014

I suspect Kevin Myers, Eoghan Harris and co. will try smearing Irish critics of the glorification of WW1 as “anti-English” or “anti-British”.

So here is what an actual English person thought of that war:



Starkadder - April 5, 2014

Sorry, should have changed my name back
to Starkadder there. I used “Edmundson”
for commenting on another blog. (blush)


4. Michael Carley - April 5, 2014

Worryingly, the Ireland’s ambassador to Australia (where Byrne lives) seems to like the article: https://twitter.com/NoelWhite2013/status/452417840834830336


5. roddy - April 5, 2014

Luke Kelly performed the ultimate version of the foggy dew.And to Harris ,Myers,Collins, uncle Tom Cobbley and all I say: “had they died by Pearses side or fought with Cahal Brugha,then their names we would keep where the fenians sleep neath the shroud of the foggy dew”


6. fergal - April 6, 2014

What was it all for? What gain was made by humanity?Why did so many Irish die in this slaughter?
I wonder if the full implicatons of huge Irish participation in the Imperial war machine have been fully thought through by Byrne, Harris and Co.Plenty of Irish helped Britain take over and rule the world- this is nothing to be proud of, and those who stress the Irishness of our contribution to Imperialism are simply playing a game of narrow minded nationalism. A very unquestioning attitude towadrs war and imperialism.


7. shea - April 6, 2014

The link mentions that the counter narrative is left to a few small formations. Why is that. Noticed there with the screening of the RTE documentary the sovereign people the other night there was no mention a few weeks back of the curragh mutiny which happened 100 years ago on the 20th of March. Self serving that the lovers of british military history in this place forgot that one but why others? Is it indifference, ignorance, or something else. Its as if the people who are scolded for living in an imagined past, don’t.


WorldbyStorm - April 6, 2014

It’s a great point you make there shea, there’s such a massive simplification of the British actions and often self-serving too on occasion.


8. Michael Carley - April 6, 2014

I had a bit more of a sniff around and dug out the original quote from O’Higgins. He was speaking in a debate on having the war memorial on Merrion Square. He objected to it being connected to the state buildings, so that WW1 might be seen as part of the origin of the state. Indeed:

In that connection I would like to say that I deprecate profoundly the mentality of either side that would like to make of the 11th November a Twelfth of July. I hope there will always be respectful admiration in the minds of Irishmen and Irishwomen for the men who went out to France and fought there and died there believing that by so doing they were serving the best interests of their country, but I do not want to see the little park in front of this State’s seat of Government dedicated to the memory of those who fell in the Great War. To do that would suggest that there is the connection, there is the link, there are the roots from which this State has sprung, but those are not the roots. If it were another park, Fitzwilliam Park, or the park in Parnell Square [!], my objection personally would be considerably less than it is to the project embodied in the present Bill.



shea - April 7, 2014

very odd article, considered review mixed with rant about someone else with a good mate in the kitchen over a cup of tea.

‘on a professional level i believe there is merit in some of his conclusions while also believing he did not prove his case in others but who does he think he is throwing his shoulders back like that.’


Michael Carley - April 7, 2014

To whom is this comment addressed?


shea - April 7, 2014

apologies CL’s comment below. Good find on O Higgins quote by the way. Debate seems to be going on since the foundation of the state, interesting, its presented as if it was a suppressed narrative. Not as simple as that apparently.


Michael Carley - April 7, 2014

What is worrying is that Byrne quoted O’Higgins accurately, which means she had access to the quote (hardly the most difficult thing to find). But if she had access to the quote, why does she misrepresent it?


shea - April 8, 2014

The article is more like a family folk history with wider facts fashioned to shape the family tale. i have two experiences of that in my family history where we are meant to intersect with irish and world history that when i looked into i don’t think the facts bear the stories out. i mentioned my findings to cousins and the like. Some continue to tell the tales and refuse to let things like facts get in the way of a good story. They wouldn’t get away with publishing them though so yeah.

Benefit of the doubt it is a matter of perception and family identities which can be important to some people academics are not immune, cynical view, its an easy number.

The verse from the Kettle poem at the end, it is generally used in this narrative but does any one think it is taken out of context. His death heald up by some as a martyer is the great war and maybe dismissed by others as the wrong war, that maybe he is specificity asking for the way his death has been remembered not to be remembered that way.

IN wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne, 5
To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor, 10
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.


9. Pangur ban - April 6, 2014

A strange piece , especially for someone with a history Ph D.
I went to school in the seventies and for the inter ( now junior ) cert, we did two of Siegfried Sassoon’ s poems ,
‘ on passing the new menin gate ‘

Well might the dead who struggled through the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime
And the one that starts
Good morning good morning the general said

Pity the guardian accepted such a shoddy article


10. CL - April 6, 2014

On a related topic,-the Irish historiographical dispute,- Diarmuid Ferriter has a very critical review of John Regan’s ‘Myth and the Irish State’.
Regan’s claim is that the IRA’s most recent campaign has influenced the writing of Irish history.
Ferriter agrees with some of Regan’s criticism of Peter Hart.
Ferriter refers to C.C.O’Brien’s efforts as ‘cartoon history’ and says that Regan exaggerates his influence. But we do see some of this ‘cartoon history’ reproduced fairly regularly by a certain Sunday Independent columnist.
This historiographical dispute will not go away and will probably intensify with all the centenaries that are upon us.


11. Gewerkschaftler - April 7, 2014

Am I the only one that finds the Guardian’s coverage of Ireland in general pretty woeful?


CMK - April 7, 2014

No. The Guardian’s coverage of almost anything is woeful and to paraphrase Bertie Ahern (his sole contribution to human life) it is getting woeful-er.


Gewerkschaftler - April 7, 2014


Partly agree. Especially the life-style crap. But when one considers the rest of the so-called free press…

Very few of the others dared to carry the Snowden stories.


ejh - April 7, 2014

It’s hard for me to judge because I don’t see the paper copy any more and you can’t judge how much of the content is any good from the web.

I like some of their columnists and I like a lot of their sportswriters (though not the mediocre Barney Ronay, obviously). What does that leave? Perhaps not that much, but aren’t newspapers mostly sports and columnists these days anyway?

it would be fair to point out that people like Nick Davies and Glenn Greenwald have published very important stuff in the recent past and did so in the Guardian. When it comes to investigation, the Guardian can still cut it.

We’d miss it if it wasn’t there.

(I stopped reading the Observer a decade or so ago because of irts over-indlugence in lifestyle articles. The fac tthat they are sister papers and have a common a website may exaggerate the Guardian’s share of their lifestyle pieces.)


Ed - April 7, 2014

We’d definitely miss it if it wasn’t there; the reporting that’s been done on police tactics against activist groups in Britain is one example of useful journalism. But I definitely think the bits that we’d miss are getting smaller as time goes by. Rusbridger likes to cultivate an image as a bold maverick while supporting the Lib Dems and dumping on the trade unions.


CMK - April 7, 2014

I’d agree with a lot of this about the ‘Guardian’ and it has, as noted, broken some really good stories over the past few years. But the evident comfortable middle-classness of its outlook permeates it’s overall outlook and is increasingly out of step with the slow motion savagery of ConDem Britain, I think.


Ed - April 8, 2014

Mike Marqusee really nailed that outlook with this comment on the Guardian’s coverage of Venezuela, I think:

“The Guardian elite sneers at Chavez’ “populism” – i.e. his popularity among what is assumed to be an emotion-driven uncritical lumpen mass. Policies that prove effective in alleviating poverty and improving social conditions are dismissed as “populist”, as a form of electoral bribery, just in case anyone gets the dangerous idea they might be more broadly applicable.

“Is there another example of poverty-alleviation on the scale seen in Venezuela since 1999 anywhere in living memory (or even beyond)? You might think that this achievement alone would give pause and make the
Guardian rethink its Chavez narrative, but no. The facts are just too awkward to be assimilated. They undermine not just a world view but a world view in which these people have a personal stake.

“What’s vital to their self-perceptions is a sense of being cognisant of and playing a role within “the world as it is”. It’s this that makes them feel superior to others, especially others who persist in seeking radical change. In most cases subscribing to “third way” politics and its evasions is what got them where they are. Had they
resisted the neo-liberal tide, they would not have progressed as they did. They have a vested interest in “the world as it is” and so they cannot afford to acknowledge that “another world is possible.”

“I specify the Guardian elite because many people who work there do not share these views and values. There is a battle inside the Guardian but in the end the elite prevail. After all, it’s not a democracy or a cooperative.

“Do not underestimate the self-regard of this elite. Their wildly misjudged support for the Lib Dems in 2010 was partly driven by the desire to be “players”, “king-makers” in the political game. Far from being inveterate oppositionists, the Guardian elite resent being excluded from the power and prestige they believe they deserves. One of the thorns in their side is their readership, which they would if they could happily exchange for another – less left wing, less critically minded, and certainly richer.



CMK - April 8, 2014

Ouch! Spot on, though. ‘Private Eye’ are good on the degree to which the ‘Guardian Elite’ are drawn from exclusive private schools and Oxbridge and that elite’s penchant for nepotism.


12. roddy - April 7, 2014

The Guardians woeful Irish coverage might have something to do with the background of its Ireland correspondent.


Joe - April 7, 2014

They’re everywhere, Roddy, everywhere. Sure you can’t throw a stone over a poorhouse wall without hitting one of the bastards.


dilettante - April 8, 2014

Very fair point roddy.
An auxiliary force to the broadcasting wing of British imperialism.


13. The Sham Squire - April 8, 2014

The debates surrounding a memorial to the Great War dead in Dublin, including Kevin O’Higgin’s statement are covered in Ann Dolan’s book Commemorating the Irish Civil War. There is also consideration of these matters in Jude Collins Whose Past is it Anyway- a collection of interviews and John Horne and Edward Madigan, Towards Commemoration- Ireland in War and Revolution- a collection of essays by historians.


14. Dr. X - April 8, 2014

May I direct comrades’ attention to this interesting website?


Basically a database of all Irish war memorials. It includes the Mayo Peace Park, the result of a project by a man who wanted to commemorate his grandfather’s experience in 1914 – 1918 .

It also includes a memorial to those who ‘died for Ireland’. Let’s not assume that what’s happening in these cases is a mere exchange of new lies for old. It’s a bit more complicated than that.


15. Michael Carley - April 8, 2014

Update to my commentary on Elaine Byrne’s article:


Basically, she can’t read.


16. Eagle - April 8, 2014

I didn’t go to school here so I have no history teacher references that I can offer, but I will say this: World War 1 is treated as being a European history topic, not Irish history, in the curriculum here. I’ve gone through my children’s history books and there is virtually no mention of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Irishmen – all volunteers – took part in the fighting.

So some teachers may be aware of or talk about the Irish contribution in the war, but others may not. After all, if it isn’t going to come up on the Leaving …

That Elaine Byrne didn’t know about the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge is also not very surprising. Before the queen went there with Pres McAleese I’d mentioned that park to many people and, although one or two knew about the park, I didn’t meet one who had actually been there.

I understand that the fact that the majority – vast majority? – of the Irish population was in favor of the war in 1914 may be politically troubling, but it should not be ignored. That more Irishmen were killed in France during Easter Week 1916 than in Dublin is very telling.

When the scale of the Irish involvement first dawned on me I was blown away. I had always thought those who fought were odd-balls or unionists. I assumed their numbers were small. I had never considered that there could be so many who went off to fight for “King and country” or for “Poor little Belgium.”

I understand O’Higgins’ point, but I’m doubtful. I doubt without the war that Sinn Fein would ever have grown as it did. I can’t help thinking that Ireland’s revolutionaries were helped by the war in the same was as Russia’s were.

And, although I suspect that everyone that comes here knows most of these things, I really doubt that the majority of Irish people do. I’m unsure that the readers of this blog are actually a representative sample of the general Irish population.


Eagle - April 8, 2014

I think the key is that it’s not that Irishmen were involved, but the scale of their involvement, the scale of support that the war had at the outset.


shea - April 8, 2014

near its conclusion though attitudes had shifted, anti conscription was a huge campaign in Ireland backed fairly widely in 1917 and 1918. Political opinion had shifted, partly because of easter week and partly because people actually had a good idea what was going on ‘over there’. It can be said that people went in to WW1 enthusiastically but many did not come out of it that way and not just in Ireland right across europe.

The debate on how to remember is not new and not confined to Ireland, in the 20’s and 30’s in britain and in some isolated cases even up to now there was debates and boycotts on interpreations and different commemorations of the event, even counter poppies. The state view won out as it usually does, difference here appears to be is that the state actually stayed out of the debate on how to remember. Big difference between that and white washing something from history.

On the lack of history books in school covering Irish involvement in ww1, how would you do it, these people where not under an Irish command, their actions where part of a british army effort that interacted with other partisipants, how is the irish experience separate from the greater european experience? Irish curriculim is very general, it gives brief context, not sure how you would fit the irish experience in ww1 into that. might be worth a try but difficult after the varied reasons for them joining the british army are explained.


Eagle - April 9, 2014


I don’t know, but you could talk about the numbers who volunteered. You could talk about the experiences of the Irish regiments; you could talk about you could talk about some key individuals – Kettle, Emmet Dalton, Tom Barry, Fr Willie Doyle; you could talk about the number of untreated shellshock patients who ended up as the local “village idiot.”

You could talk about rationing; you could talk about the ships sunk off the coast (not just Lusitania) – especially the Leinster, which was sunk about 10 miles from Dun Laoghaire with the loss of 500+ lives – many Irish; you could talk about the women who went off nursing; the refugees who came here from Belgium; the hospitals set up here to cater to the injured; the impact on organized labor; the 1915 riots in Liverpool when the British decided that no more Irish farm boys would be allowed to flee to America to escape conscription.

The topic seems massive to me. I find it hard to understand how it’s glossed over/ignored here. And it is essentially glossed over.


Michael Carley - April 9, 2014
Eagle - April 9, 2014


Well, that’s a pretty good outline for the topics that could be discussed.


Michael Carley - April 9, 2014

It comes from a site run by UCC to support Leaving Cert students.


hardcorefornerds - April 8, 2014

I found Padraig Yeates’ book ‘A City in Wartime’ about Dublin in 1914-18 very interesting in illustrating the shifts in public opinion that took place, as well as the effects of the war and the war economy on Dublin, at least.

As for the Islandbridge park I heard about it before Elaine Byrne did, and in my mid-teens, but I definitely got the sense prior to Queen Elizabeth’s visit that it wasn’t particularly well-known or a prominent memorial.

I suspect part of her original attitude however might be explained as a natural liberal disdain for militarism in general; it’s only more recently that it has regained political significance as part of a ‘mature’ narrative of Irish statehood. I don’t mean that to sound as cynical or calculating as it might seem – it’s just that the reasons why the Irish war dead were not as celebrated prevously could be broader than have been given so far. On the other hand, this debate has a strong flavour for the backlash against the backlash…


Eagle - April 9, 2014


Yes, Yeates’ book did capture those huge swings very well.

“I suspect part of her original attitude however might be explained as a natural liberal disdain for militarism in general.” I think there’s a lot in that statement that I would agree with.


EWI - April 9, 2014

I’ve gone through my children’s history books and there is virtually no mention of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Irishmen – all volunteers – took part in the fighting.

How many hundreds of thousands fought in the armies of the US, Mexico, France, Spain, Austria etc.?

Not mentioned in the Leaving Cert history books much either, Eagle. This “Poppy Exceptionalism” is a post-colonial hangover…


The Sham Squire - April 10, 2014

The First World War shaped Ireland in a way none of those other conflicts did. Most of the men who fought in it lived out their lives in Ireland unlike the wild geese or the irish in Americas wars – and there would have been no successful independence struggle without it- it deserves all the attention it gets and does not have to be pro British


Eagle - April 10, 2014

I agree with you Sham. WW1 had a huge impact on Ireland.


Eagle - April 10, 2014


I would argue that the Irish who fought in the American Civil War should be taught here. Again the motivation of those who fought were varied, but that they fought, valiantly, brought pride to the Irish in America and in Ireland.

The Union recruited here – illegally and unethically – but more than that there were people here who would have been worried for loved ones involved and mourned for those who were killed.

I don’t know that too many fought for Mexico – the San Patricios were outnumbered by Irishmen on the other side in that war – but still their story is worth knowing.

And I know you can wear yourself out going back through time, but the Irish fought on both sides in America’s War of 1812 & the Revolution, in the Napoleonic Wars and further back.

My problem with the way history is taught in school here is that the topics that are covered are covered in incredible depth/detail. That my daughter spent so much time on French govts in the inter-war years and that she learned about the Tennessee Valley Authority and nothing about the Irish WW1 experience seems odd.


17. CL - April 8, 2014

” Let us honour the estimated 200,000 Irishmen who fought for the dream of the herdsman’s shed and the 50,000 who died fighting for it.”Elaine Byrne.
-Well at least now we know the reason for the mass slaughter.


18. Noddy - April 8, 2014

Elaine Byrne is a blueshirt who gives a fuck what she thinks.


19. Jim Monaghan - April 8, 2014

I am bemused at the idea that there was any real discrimination against ex servicemen and women who fought for Britain in either war. People forget how related everyone is in this society. Eg Ernie O’Malley had 2 brothers in the BA. The fact of the matter is that discrimination was driven by the patronage machines of politics and the vested interests. And many employers would have regarded service in the BA as preferable to service in the IRA.


CL - April 9, 2014

Yes, what happened to President Michael D’s father,-who was on the losing side in the civil war-was not unusual.


20. Eagle - April 9, 2014

“In later years it was common — and I was also guilty in this respect — to question the motives of those men who joined the new British armies formed at the outbreak of the war, but it must, in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said that they were motivated by the highest purpose.”—Sean Lemass in 1966.

Now I wouldn’t go that far. Some were motivated by the highest purpose. I’m thinking of Kettle. Some by desperation. Here I’m thinking of my wife’s great-grandfather, who was in the Irish Citizen’s Army. He was a bricklayer’s helper, according to the 1911 census. I’m guessing he wasn’t terribly skilled or terribly well paid and he may well have enlisted for the paycheck seeing as he was obviously something of a hardline labor man. He had a wife & 5 children, all under 12 yrs of age. He was a corporal and one of those Irishmen who died in France during Easter Week 1916 (same unit as Elaine Byrne’s great-grandfather).

I’m sure others were motivated by their love of King & country, others because they didn’t want to look cowardly and others simply for adventure.

I see no reason why this full picture should go unexplored in school or in the media, etc.


fergal - April 9, 2014

Eagle- would it not be equally important to do the same for the Germans? To humanise the “enemy” so to speak. In other words blowing a complete stranger’s head off with a bullet is not a civilised way of solving any real or imagined arguments you have with a person you have never met. “War can never be humanised, it must be abolished”- Einstein;


Eagle - April 10, 2014

I’m not sure I follow. My point is that the war is part of Irish history and should be thought of and taught as such.

Having said that, I think there’s an argument for always learning about all the combatants in a war.


21. 6to5against - April 9, 2014

I read a really good book recently about Irish involvement in the US civil war. The numbers of irish involved seem to have been comparable to the First World War, both in terms of participation and fatalities.

We don’t hear much about that, of course. Is that due to prejudice and bigotry, or is it simply down to the fact that it was a long time ago and we have limited capacity for remembrance?


On a related point, I lived in the UK for a few years in the 90s. Away from the media, I found very few wearing poppies or paying any interest in WW1 remembrances. Was that too due to a suppressed narrative?


CL - April 10, 2014

Quite a few Irish who fought in the American civil war would later take part in the Fenian rebellion, including the Manchester Martyr, Michael O’Brien.
Neither should we forget the mainly Irish anti-draft rioters of NYC who lynched many blacks.
And we should not forget John Mitchel, racist and Irish republican. Two of his sons died fighting for the Confederacy. Mitchel’s grandson, John Purroy Mitchel, at the age of 34 became Mayor of NYC in 1914, and as a major in the Air Service died in a crash in 1918.


Eagle - April 10, 2014


The Mitchel Apartments in the South Bronx are named after John Purroy Mitchel. Every time I drive over the Triborough Bridge into the Bronx I see those apartments I’m reminded of John Mitchel’s odd journey through life.


Eagle - April 10, 2014


That book is by Damian Shiels. He runs a fantastic blog on the topic at IrishAmericanCivilWar.com.

I haven’t had a chance to read his book yet, but just going by what I see on his blog I’m sure it’s excellent.


22. roddy - April 10, 2014

Unfortunately, many people would genuinely be unaware of Mitchel’s obnoxious American life.


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