“The trenches in France are healthier than the slums of Dublin”!
-British army recruiting poster,1916
The big, framed, multi-coloured certificate on our wall in Ennis, in the West of Ireland, puzzled me for a long time when I was very small.
To the right of the fireplace, near the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (in which Jesus Christ wore his wounded, thorn-bound, bleeding heart outside his shirt) it was decorated at the top by a semi-circle of little flags of different sorts. The inscription was what I could not make sense of. It testified that John O'Mahony "had given his life" in July 1916, "to defend the liberty of his country".
It was not my uncle's name – my own name, too, in English, in memory of him – that confused me, but the reference to "his country". Which country? John was in the English army. England was not his country, or mine; and England's army was not the army of Ireland, his country.
I could not identify the Empire flags on the certificate, but I knew the Irish tricolour, and that was not there.
At first I was just puzzled; later, as I learned official 26 Counties history at school, I became vaguely ashamed, even angry. My uncle John died "defending his country" just a few weeks after the English army burned the centre of Dublin and killed 16 of their captured prisoners of war. These were the heroes who, with the earlier Republicans and the Irish saints and missionaries of ancient times and of our own time, were held up to us as embodying the highest ideals of Catholic Ireland.
I was uneasy, but pitying too. I knew John's face, and his story. On the staircase there was a big framed old-fashioned sepia picture of a couple posing in a photographer's studio. The man, though he had a broad mustache and was in uniform, looked a bit like my father. The woman was bareheaded, in a long-skirted tight-bodied dress. Good-looking people in their twenties, both of them looked out at you boldly, seemingly afraid of nothing.
It was a wedding picture. John and Bid were married, then John's leave was up, and he was gone, for good. I knew Bid. The handsome, bold-eyed woman in the photo was a tall, strong-boned, gaunt-faced old woman, one of the few women in the town who still dressed not in a coat but in the old-fashioned all-covering long black tasseled shawl. She never remarried. She had had a husband for one week.
As I got older, I could make more sense of my father's stories. The high-spirited John got drunk one evening, broke some windows, in a fight perhaps (I can't remember), and the magistrate press-ganged him into the army.
But the magistrates and the others who wielded the pressures of the established order to herd men into the Army did not press-gang all the hundreds of thousands of Irish men who joined up.
Sometimes it was "economic conscription". In places like Ennis, a market town with little industry, the town poor eked out a living as best they could, hiring out as drovers at fairs, doing building work, cutting firewood in the woods outside the town and hawking it, cutting hazel saplings ("scollops") and selling bundles ("barths") of them for use in thatching houses.
John's brother, Bob, joined the British Army too. He was carrying an enormous bundle of scollops from the woods on his back down miles of country road into the town one day, and having a back-breaking time of it as always. He stopped to rest against a wall, and there and then decided that the army was "better than this". He survived, shell-shocked.
A younger brother, Patrick, followed after them and went through the war unscathed, only to be crippled by a hand-grenade when fighting, probably for mercenary reasons, on the wrong side, the government side, in the Irish civil war of 1922-3.
Another force, the force of family tradition, also pulled them and, I guess, many others towards the British Army. Three of their uncles, and namesakes, John, Bob, Patsy, had been professional soldiers. Two of them, I think, went to India. From all over Ireland the class of town labourers, victims of perpetual underemployment and the half-starvation that went with it, had for generations supplied recruits to the British Army.
My father and another brother escaped the pull to go too only because they were still children. But they did not escape the pull of inbuilt, albeit conflicted, loyalties. To my childish exasperation, not even the struggle for Irish independence and the terrorist campaign of the Black and Tans to suppress the elected Irish parliament, which declared Ireland a Republic in January 1919, eradicated those loyalties. My father would tell stories about the Black and Tan terror, as my mother would, but the ordinary British soldier, my father would say, was decent enough, and would try sometimes to stop the Black and Tans ill-treating people.
He would tell a story about himself aged 14 and his half-blind father being cornered and bullied by sportive Tans on a country road, and "rescued" by ordinary soldiers. Apparently this was a not uncommon experience, and a common feeling about the soldiers.
Nor was it only for economic reasons that men went off to kill other "young men they did not know" and with whom they had no real quarrel. Everywhere in the armed camps of the nations – in Germany, Britain, France, Austria – there was delirious enthusiasm for the war.
It was a break in the dull routine. Men were to be destroyed in the clash of enormous de-personalised military machines. they would go out "over the top" for as long as they lasted against machine guns which scythed them down like corn standing in a field. They hadgone off to join the army with images of war as gallantry, adventure, and personal initiative. They died in their millions.
In Ireland people of all sorts and classes flocked to "the colours". By April 1916, when the Rising in Dublin led by Connolly and Pearse began to change the course of Irish history, 150,000 Irish men were in the British army. By the end of the war, over 200,000 Irish were fighting under British flags.
The historian Roy Foster sums up some of the reasons why. "Town labourers predominated over agricultural labourers, often encouraged by unemployment at home and the prospect of a generous separation allowance for their families; Belfast provided a higher proportion for reasons of proletarianisation as much as Protestantism".
In the north of Ireland, the men who had organised in the Ulster Volunteer Force and armed themselves with imported German guns on the eve of the war to resist the British Liberal Government if it tried to coerce them into a united Ireland, joined up en masse. In Catholic Ireland many thousands had organised and armed themselves in the lrish Volunteers to back Home Rule, and if necessary fight the Northerners and their Volunteer Force . They joined the British Army too, in their big majority, to prove that a Home Rule Ireland would be "loyal" to the Empire. That is what their leaders told them to do.
They met, Northerners and Southerners, Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists, far away in France, and found that they could after all unite – in the mass graves of places like Ypres and the Somme.
Orange and Green were united not in the fraternity of an all-Ireland national identity, and not by the benign white with which those who designed the Irish tricolour in the 1840s had linked the Orange and the Green, but by the red, white and blue of the UK flag and the red of their own blood.
Over a million men, including my uncle John, died in the battle of the Somme, in July 1916, most of them workers from the slums of Berlin, Paris, Manchester, London, and similar places. Many thousands of them were Irish. A great compact mass of them, 12,000 strong, were Ulster Protestants. The men who had first come together to fight Home Rule, and if necessary England, perished en masse fighting Germany on behalf of England.
Yet that great slaughter helped to transform Ireland. It was not only, perhaps not even mainly, the 1916 Rising that changed the course of Irish politics. It was the attempt to force conscription (introduced in Britain in 1916) on to Ireland which united Catholic Ireland behind the coalition that regrouped under the flag of the newly Republican Sinn Fein party – it was a monarchist party until 1917 – which won the November 1918 election on a platform of secession from the United Kingdom.
In the last half of the war, recruitment in Ireland fell off dramatically. According to Foster, "By 1917, figures prepared for the Cabinet showed that the percentage of the male population represented by enlistment was down to 4.96% in Ireland, compared to 17% in England, Scotland and Wales".
The Rising, with the cold-blooded killing afterwards of some of those who surrendered, was no doubt one reason for this. The great campaign against conscription, in which the Catholic Church and its organisations where central, completed the alienation from the United Kingdom. The young men of Ireland turned from "defending the liberty of their country" to attempting to win it from those with whom they had far greater reason to quarrel than they ever had with Germany.
Some of them helped drive Britain out of Southern Ireland: the most successful Republican field commander in Ireland's war of independence, Tom Barry, had gone through the entire World War in the British Army.
John O'Mahony crawled out of a trench and hoisted a wounded comrade crippled in no-man's-land on his back to bring him in. They were both cut to pieces by machine gun fire. The officer who wrote to tell his wife that he was dead (part of whose letter was printed in the local paper, the Clare Champion, from which I take this information) said that he had been "mentioned in dispatches". He was 25 years old.
Everywhere in Europe, soldiers returned embittered. Many of them turned to communism, elaborating a new definition of freedom. One of the millions who died in the great imperialist slaughter, my uncle John, like all the other uncles, brothers, fathers, sons, cousins and nephews who died, was past learning.
Against the Tide column, Socialist Organiser, July 1991