Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day

Today we celebrate the end of The Great War. And I feel I should say something about Ireland’s contribution.

Although it wasn’t Ireland’s fight, many Irishmen fought. They fought for many reasons, but the two main reasons were: training for the fight that was to come in Ireland; and the promise of Home Rule for Ireland. But many never returned to Irish soil to follow up on their plans. Up to 50,000 Irishmen are believed to have died during the War. Notable battles in which they died include The Battle of the Somme and the Gallipoli Campaign.

Before the war even began there were around 50,000 Irishmen serving in the British Army in some form or other. Why? For the wage, of course. And when the war broke out, thousands of Irishmen joined to fight by Redmond’s persuasion. [Redmond argued that if the Irish fought for Britain, Home Rule for Ireland would be a sure thing.] Inevitably, Redmond and his supporters learned the too-often-learned-too-often-forgotten fact that British promises amount to nothing. Since he had convinced thousands of Irishmen to join the British army, he assumed that he would have some respect and privilege in Westminster. No. No way. They ignored the Irish Party’s protests during discussions on introducing an act for conscription in Ireland. The act passed, but due to public protests in Ireland, conscription was never introduced in Ireland during the war. Sinn Féin, having argued that attending Westminster was futile, won public support over the Irish Parliamentary Party. And Sinn Féin still upholds this belief today.

Irishmen started enrolling in the army, and not just the British Army; the other Allied nations received Irishmen to fight for them as well. It is estimated that around 180,000 Irish nationalists, i.e. men who would normally prefer to fight against Britain, joined the British Army. They became the 10th, 16th, and 36th (Ulster/UVF) divisions.

They were distrusted, abused and sent to the slaughter by their bigoted commanders. All of the divisions lost more than half of their men, so as the war dragged on, these ‘Irish’ divisions were re-stocked with Scottish, Welsh and English soldiers and they were then Irish mostly in name. Casualties are debatable, but roughly 30-50,000 Irishmen died.

At that period of history, their deaths were overshadowed by the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed back home in Ireland. Thankfully, though, they have not been forgotten. Within the last ten years, officials from this country, like the President and the Minister for Foreign affairs, have paid tribute to these men and the sites that honour them, such as the Irish War Memorial Park in Dublin and the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium.

One of the nine stone tablets at the Island of Ireland Peace Park reads:

“So here, while the mad guns curse overhead, and tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor, know that we fools, now with the foolish dead, died not for Flag, nor King, nor Emperor, but for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed, and for the sacred scripture of the poor.”
          —Tom Kettle, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers

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