Waterford County Museum, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, Ireland. Charity Reg: 17397
Tel: +353 (0)58 45960  Email: [email protected]
Articles    Photos
Table Of Contents

The First World War And Ireland

1. Introduction
August 4, 2004 is the ninetieth anniversary of the First World War, however we in Ireland will most likely will leave this important episode pass us by. However this was not always the case. In this article I hope to show the reader that Ireland as a nation contributed much more than the thousands of soldiers, who fought in the many theatres of war from that period. We as a people also contributed from a civilian level something that I hope this article will show.

The study of Ireland and the First World War, until very recently suffered from what the English historian George Boyce has called 'a symbol of the battle between Unionism and Nationalism'. [1] However, since the 1980s a change in Irish historiography has helped to redress this imbalance, much of this redress is due to the works of David Fitzpatrick, Patrick Callan, Martin Staunton, Terence Denman and Thomas Dooley. [2] To understand this change of scholarly focus it is important to emphasize the Ireland that existed between August 1914 and January 1919 when Dail Eireann met for the first time. Thomas Hennessey has argued that the 'the enthusiasm which gripped Ireland at the beginning of World War 1 obscured the nuances which divided Nationalist and Unionist perspectives on the importance of the conflict.' [3] So what are the reasons behind the 'politicised' [4] memory of Ireland's contribution to the First World War. For some historians the number of men who enlisted is more important than the fact that different sectors of Irish society enlisted. Moreover the numbers of those who enlisted between 4 August 1914 and February 1915 are dramatically different from the figures of August 1918 and 11 November 1918. The figures for the early months of the war August to February stood at 50,107 compared to the 9,845 who enlisted between August and November 1918, [5] the final three months of the war. However these figures do not say if there were greater numbers of Catholics or Protestants, or to use a different argument were those who enlisted Unionists or Nationalists? Indeed for some, the most important fact was, that Ireland supported England in her time of need. Peter Karsten is one historian who suggests that many of 'the Irish recruits in 1914 were admittedly a mixed lot.' [6] But this had changed over the opening months of the war due to what Karsten calls the British recruiters who were 'largely insensitive' [7] to Redmond's call 'for a distinctively Irish division.' [8] However not everyone was caught up in this fervour. One of these was Tom Barry (who later became Chief of Staff of the IRA in the late 1930s) [9] who wrote.

In June 1915, in my seventeenth year, I had decided to see what this Great War was like. I cannot plead I went on the advice of John Redmond or any other politician, that if we fought for the British we would secure Home Rule for Ireland, nor can I say I understood what Home Rule meant. I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to fight to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man. [10]

This idea was not new. Myles Dungan a journalist who has written on World War 1 as argued that 'in a society where military service was an integral part of the cultural landscape and where wars of one kind or another had been fought in each generation, the rush to 'join up' after the declaration of hostilities in 1914 was understandable.' [11] Indeed enlisting was seen as 'proving ground' [12] for many men who wanted to test their 'maleness'. [13] For others the war meant something very different. The Cork diarist and radical nationalist, who later became a member of Dail Eireann, Liam de Roiste, believed the hopes of many nationalists like him would be realised. Writing in November 1914, de Roiste stated: 'but this is a wonderful year; a remarkable, an exciting, a disturbing year. There are hopes; hopes high as the stars for those who love Ireland.' [14] For the majority of people in Cork and Ireland in general, the war would be seen very different the longer it progressed. The Cork historian Dermot Lucey writes:

For the great mass of Cork people, their support for the allies, along with some other factors, coloured their interpretation of the major war happenings, the cause of, and the blame for, the alleged treatment of Belgium and its people, the progress of ally and enemy, which in turn, to some extent, affected opinion on the duration. [15]

While for the many of Cork's business community and the wider public the general belief was the war would be over by Christmas. A point made by another Cork historian Thomas Linehan who wrote:

In 1914 no one foresaw the difficulties that were to come and Cork Businessmen, like businessmen everywhere assumed that the war would be a short one. In general the war effort was supported with due patriotic fervour. [16]

This patriotic fervour would lead to a total of 7,230 men in Cork enlisting between 2 August 1914 and 8 January 1916. [17] What is especially striking is during this period recruiting was controlled by civilian agencies whose campaigns for greater recruitment were for the mostly ineffective. [18] Indeed from the beginning of the war in August until April 1915 the recruitment campaign was at the very best 'on an ad hoc basis.' [19] However ad hoc these campaigns were, those run by the Central Council for the Organisation of Recruiting in Ireland what became known as the (CCORI) were especially ineffective dropping from 6,000 in March 1915 to 2,000 by the following September. Likewise as the CCORI replaced one recruitment campaign it too was replaced in October 1915 this time by the Department of Recruiting for Ireland (DRI) headed by Lord Wimborne Ireland's Lord Lieutenant. One of the first campaigns that the DRI used was a postal campaign. [20] Commenting on the postal campaign in November 1915 Liam de Roiste states that some of what he calls the 'circulars' (recruitment letters) were sent to wrong houses and addresses. [21] But these were not the only mistakes. Others included a house that received 6 of these circulars where 2 boys lived, while other houses received none. But what is particularly interesting some these houses had men of military age residing in them. [22] But these were not the only concerns of those who ran many of the recruitment campaigns. Another which had as much impact was the greater number of wounded soldiers whose initial high spirits, what David Fitzpatrick calls the 'lusting for sport against Turk or Hun' [23] was followed with 'monotony and homesickness, pierced occasionally by sudden recognition of a long-lost friend struggling through the smoke.' [24] Richard Doherty's 'The Sons of Ulster' records some of the experiences of those who enlisted in the 36th Ulster Division. One of these was seventeen-year-old Thomas Gibson who recorded his first experience of front line warfare. 'At first it was fairly quiet in the line: 'It was rare to see anybody wounded even for the first fortnight, but that soon changed'. [25] When one of Gibson's friend's was heard to say (when a one of his comrades was seriously wounded).'What's my poor mother going to say about this?' [26] Furthermore it could not have been missed by the greater majority of the growing levels of men who returned wounded following the disastrous military campaigns in Gallipoli in 1915 or the Somme in July 1916. [27]  A concern of the Irish Labour leader James Connolly who as early as November 1914 wrote:

"The hospitals of every city in the three kingdoms are crammed with the mangled, twisted, and maimed bodies crammed with the mangled, twisted, and maimed bodies of the wounded; more than half-a-million soldiers we are told by eminent authorities lie groaning in the hospitals of France, and lying the sod of France and Belgium or under billows of the oceans are many thousands whose names are still appearing in the lists of missing, and whose relatives still hopefully believe they are alive and safe as prisoners of war." [28]

Author: Dave Hennessy

Join Our Mailing List

Join our mailing list and get all the latest news for free via email. Simply enter your email address in the box below and press the 'Join' button.

Make A Donation

Waterford County Museum is a non profit voluntary museum. We would be grateful for any financial donation large or small.

Make payments with PayPal - it's fast, free and secure!

Social Media

Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Blogger Follow us on Youtube
© Waterford County Museum 2014. All rights reserved. Please read our Terms of Use
Website By: Déise Design