UNA BRADLEY
Irish Times
6 Apr 2012

THE FIRST World War represents the worst Irish death toll from a single event since the Famine, making it imperative that its place in history be accorded recognition, it has been argued at a public lecture in Belfast.

More than 200,000 Irish men enlisted in the 1914-1918 war and about 30,000 died, Prof Keith Jeffery told an audience at the Ulster Museum on Wednesday, as part of the “Decade of Anniversaries 2012-2023” lecture series.

The Queen’s University academic said the Great War also provided a snapshot of Ireland “at its most united and at its most divided. At the start of the war . . . Irish public opinion, both nationalist and unionist, was united behind the British and Allied war effort,” he explained, noting that many Irish people viewed the war as a case of “small nations” taking on the might of Germany and Austria.

Within two years, however, the 1916 Rising, coupled with the “fierce response of the government – who thought the Rising was backed by Germany”, led to a hardening of Irish nationalism, he said.

This development was mirrored in the North when the heavy losses suffered by the Ulster Division at the Somme “provided an equal and opposite blood sacrifice”.

A greater understanding, in recent years, of the way in which nationalists and unionists had fought side by side had helped foster reconciliation, said Prof Jeffery in his keynote address.

“The least we can do in their honour is to recognise their common endeavour, and common sacrifice, and let it inform our efforts to establish lasting peaceful community relations in Ireland,” he concluded.

Belfast historian Jim McDermott focused on the ideological difficulties experienced by Irish volunteers in the first World War.

“While articles such as James Connolly’s ‘Slums and the Trenches’ acknowledged the courage of the National Volunteers, they also portrayed them as dupes, seduced to fight a foreign war,” he said.

“Anti-war propagandists argued that the War Office favoured the 36th Ulster Division over the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions and that Irish losses at engagements such as Gallipoli in 1915 were inadequately appreciated by the British establishment,” he continued.

When the executions of the 1916 leaders saw nationalist support swing away from the Irish Parliamentary Party toward a reinvigorated Sinn Féin, it meant Irish volunteers returning from the war in Europe were “confronted by the reality that their original reason for service . . . had been overtaken by events. While this must have rankled in the South, it was even more hurtful in Ulster, especially following partition,” he added.

Philip Orr, author of The Road to the Somme, elaborated on this last point, arguing that the involvement of Irish nationalists in the Great War became taboo – on both sides of the Border.

“In the postwar years of domestic military struggle . . . the history of nationalist service in the British forces became something to hide. Only more recently has there been a surge of interest in Ireland’s Great War narrative, which stresses that this brutal conflict was a tragedy for almost everyone on the island.”

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