By Daniel Mulhall
7:30AM BST 01 Aug 2014
At Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery yesterday, a significant event took place: the
unveiling of a Cross of Sacrifice erected in conjunction with the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In a cemetery associated with
Ireland’s patriot dead, this new monument represents an important symbolic
reflection of changed Irish attitudes towards the First World War.
The Irish memory of the War has always been complicated by the fact that the
founding moment of the independent Irish State occurred during it, but not
on the Somme or at Gallipoli. It took place in Dublin with the Easter Rising
of 1916. This means that memories of the Western Front have had to vie with
those of Dublin’s General Post Office for the attention of the Irish public.
And Easter 1916, a specifically Irish event directly connected with the
emergence of our independent state, naturally won.
Growing up in the Ireland of the Sixties, I was aware that my paternal
grandfather had been a veteran of our war of independence. I also recall
knowing a great uncle on my mother’s side who had fought in British uniform
on the Somme.
One hundred years after its outbreak, it is now possible to cast a calm eye on
Irish involvement in the war. The first thing to be said is that Irish
participation was extensive. The numbers of Irish combatants and fatalities
are uncertain, because many Irishmen joined non-Irish regiments in Britain,
Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, while the Irish regiments often
contained soldiers not born in Ireland. What is clear is that several
hundred thousand Irishmen fought in the war and between 40,000 and 50,000
died. Many more would have been wounded or traumatised by the conflict.
When war broke out, there were eight Irish regiments containing 30,000
soldiers and an equal number of reservists who were part of the regular
British army. Men from these units formed part of the British Expeditionary
Force dispatched to France in August 1914, where they saw service in the
Battle of Mons and later at the Marne, one of the war’s defining early
battles. By the end of 1914, it is estimated that at least 8,000 Irishmen –
from the Dublin, Iniskilling & Munster Fusiliers, from the Royal Irish
Regiment and the Royal Irish Rifles – had already died on Europe’s
Most of the Irish who fought and died in the war were not regular soldiers,
but men from all parts of Ireland and all political creeds who volunteered
for service during the war. In early August 1914, mass Irish participation
in the war could not have been guaranteed, for Ireland was in a state of
tension on account of divisions between nationalists and unionists over
Irish Home Rule. Until late July 1914, Britain was preoccupied with the
Irish Home Rule crisis rather than the fallout from the assassinations in
Sarajevo. In Ireland, a sense of grievance ran high about the manner in
which Home Rule had been blocked and, on 29 July 1914, 200,000 people turned
out in Dublin for the funerals of four civilians killed by British soldiers
a few days earlier.
As soon as war was declared, the Irish parliamentary party leader John Redmond
gave his full backing to the British war effort and urged his followers to
enlist for service. Redmond felt genuine admiration for the heroism of the
Belgian people and believed there was no sacrifice “which Ireland would
not be willing to make to come to their assistance”. Many Irish
nationalists answered Redmond’s call to arms for the defence of Catholic
Once the war settled into its grim stride, three Irish Divisions were deployed
– the 10th, the 16th and the 36th. The 10th Irish Division suffered huge
casualties during the Dardanelles campaign, losing almost half of its 17,000
men, and also saw action in the Balkans.
1916 was a crucial year for Ireland, with the Easter Rising and the Battle of
the Somme, where the mainly Irish nationalist 16th Division and the
Ulstermen of the 36th Division fought side by side.
Many prominent Irishmen were lost in battle, including Willie Redmond, brother
of the nationalist leader. There were also Irish war poets, two of whom, Tom
Kettle and Francis Ledwidge deserve a mention.
Kettle had been an MP for a number of years and in August 1914 was in Belgium
trying to purchase arms for the nationalist Irish volunteers. Witnessing the
invasion of Belgium and the destruction Louvain, he concluded that the war
was a struggle between enlightened European values and Prussian militarism.
He enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers and days before his death in September
1916 he wrote a poem to his daughter in which he explained his motivations.
He assured her that he had:
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.
Francis Ledwidge, a talented writer from County Meath, who admired the leaders
of the Easter Rising, wrote poems from the World War battlefields as well as
poems in honour those who fought in Dublin in Easter 1916. In spite of his
strong nationalist sympathies, Ledwidge returned to the Western Front and
was killed at Ypres in July 1917.
Perhaps the best insight into the Irish who fought in the 1914-1918 war is
provided in a note left behind by Willie Redmond in which he said that: “in
joining the Irish Brigade and going to France, I sincerely believed, as all
Irish soldiers do, that I was doing my best for the welfare of Ireland in
By the time the war came to an end, Ireland had undergone dramatic political
change and the Irish Party was all but wiped out in the General Election of
1918 by the heirs to the Easter Rising, but that’s a story for another day.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London
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