Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Galway and the Great War by William Henry, Mercier Press, ISBN 1-85635-524-1, €20 pbk
One of the problems when dealing with an overview of Irish history in the early 20th Century has been a tendency to ignore certain areas due to the Irish insurrection, the war of independence and the emergence of the Irish state. One such area is the Irish contribution in the first world war as part of the British forces.
The tendency to concentrate on those who fought in the war of independence has caused many historians to side-line the 250,000 Irish who left to join the British army and navy during the period 1914-18. These men left Ireland at the bequest of John Redmond to fight for "the freedom of small nations", on the promise that when they returned Ireland would be given home rule.
They left as heroes. When they returned, the face of Ireland's politics had changed. A general election had taken place and the people had declared for an independent republic. Many of the returned soldiers joined the Volunteers, like Tom Barry, others, still in British uniform, became bewildered and unsure of their allegiance. These were now treated like traitors and the story of their hardships was neglected.
Unfortunately, an effect of this neglect of the Irish regiments and units in the first world war was that the northern unionists were able to 'take over' this history.
We hear much of the sacrifice of the 36th Division as popularised in the McGuiness play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme. The battle of the Somme, 1916, became for the Ulster loyalists another battle of the Boyne. Yet more Irish nationalists were sacrificed there than loyalists. Nationalist Ireland had lost more of its young men than the north but it was unfashionable to mention it.
In Galway, the world war of 1914-18 affected almost every family. In this immensely readable work, Galway archaeologist and historian, William Henry, the author of an acclaimed biography of Eamonn Ceannt, examines the period as it affected his city.
The recruitment, the propaganda speeches caused 180 young men to enlist at just one meeting alone. He follows the recruits to the reality of this unnecessary war, to the battles of Mons, Aisne, Ypres, Loos, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Jutland to the Somme and Cambrai when uncountable young men of Ireland sacrificed themselves mostly in the belief that it was for Ireland.
While, in hindsight, we can deplore that sacrifice as misguided, we cannot ignore it nor can we belittle it. This is an important work in address the balance of unionist propaganda.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Peter Berresford Ellis