Ireland’s World War One Dead: The legacy


My grandfather, Rickard Donovan, fought in the First World War. There is nothing unusual in this, hundreds of thousands of other people in this country have a relative who fought in that “war to end all wars”. What is extraordinary is the lack of interest, and the widespread ignorance about Ireland’s part in that war.

independent image

Brian Donovan, Director of Eneclann.

People are at a loss to know how to remember or even commemorate, and what they should remember or commemorate. Naturally many people here have no desire to engage in the sort of glorification of imperial military engagements across the planet. They have no desire to wear the official British Legion poppies that adorn all commentators, politicians and TV presenters across the water. Why would you wear something that is intended to raise funds for an army who fought against us during the war of independence, or were responsible for more recent horrors in the north? In short most of us have no interest in “celebrating” militarism or engaging in any form of British national patriotism.
But the fact remains that over 240,000 Irishmen fought in the war. Moreover up to 49,000 of them died as a consequence. The sheer scale of this tragedy is hard to comprehend. These numbers are 10 times more than the casualties of the “troubles” that afflicted our island for 30 years, and concentrated over a much shorter time span. The extent of personal loss, the permanent scar left on families up and down the country was profound. It is difficult to imagine as we have never seen anything like this in living memory. But it can only have been made worse by the state sponsored amnesia that existed. It was not that the dead or injured didn’t officially exist. They did, its just the general view was that it was of no significance or relevance. That’s an awful way to treat the victims of this European calamity. We have been paralysed in our treatment of the war by the fact they fought (mostly) in British uniform. Given that Ireland was still part of the UK at the time, we should not be surprised.

The first time the Irish government officially marked the deaths of the war was in January 2005 when at the War Memorial gardens in Islandbridge the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, John O’Donoghue TD, launched a DVD publication by Eneclann of Ireland’s War Memorial Records, a republication of the exceptionally rare 8 volume work which documented those Irish soldiers who died. The Minister made two important points during the launch, which to this day reflect the government’s general view. Firstly he maintained the fiction that the dead were mostly from the north, and that the government was trying to reach out to Unionist opinion by commemorating their dead. Secondly, he remarked that while he recognised their pain, his loyalty was to the men who were imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol following 1916. The two were treated as mutually exclusive.
It may be seen as a progressive development that our government has finally recognised the special suffering of the Unionist community by marking the battle of the Somme and the War in general, but that is just perpetuating a myth. The 8 volumes mentioned above record more than 49,000 deaths. Many of these were not born in Ireland, but were of Irish parentage or viewed themselves as part of the diaspora. There have been quite a few commentators who have tried to argue that we should exclude those people as not really Irish at all (a rather difficult position to maintain in light of our current appeal to the diaspora!). But even if we just include the 31,000 who give a place of birth in Ireland, just 37% come from what is now Northern Ireland. True, it is proportionately higher than the rest of the country, but it remains that at least 19,000 people from the twenty-six counties died in the war. Of these, nearly 5,000 were from Dublin, more than 2,000 from Cork, over 1,000 from Tipperary, 754 from Galway, and so on. In fact the precise numbers who died are only now being tracked down comprehensively by scholars like Tom Burnell, John Kirwan and others. By ignoring the deaths from outside Northern Ireland we have allowed Unionists to portray WW1 as exclusively their history. It is not.

It is also a fallacy and utterly a-historical to posit WW1 against the 1916 rebellion or the war of independence which followed. In fact the war was an important part of that story. Not only was the campaign against conscription in Ireland in 1918 a key driver in the campaign for independence, many of the central military figures who fought for independence were veterans of WW1 like Tom Barry or Emmet Dalton. Arguably the very success of their guerrilla war stemmed from their real military experience, and their ability to train volunteers effectively because of it. Many more Irishmen might have fought beside them for Irish independence but lay dead in one battle or other across Europe. So when Irish nationalists in the past referred to veterans as “mercenaries” or “national traitors” they simply show their own historical ignorance.

It is high time that Ireland starts to remember the dead of WW1 as part of our story. We don’t need to follow the imperial jingoism of our neighbours in Britain, France and elsewhere. Perhaps we can best commemorate the Irish war dead of WWI by a public reflection of the horror of war and the danger when militarism is fused with nationalist ideology, or maybe our opposition to imperialism and the cost of Empire in human lives? English, German, French, Turkish, Indian, Armenian, Russian, African, American and Irish men were slaughtered in their millions over a few short years a century ago. They deserve to be remembered.

Brian Donovan is CEO of Eneclann Ltd. and Business Development Director of findmypast Ireland


You can also view the edited versions of these articles in The

“It’s high time we honoured war dead as part of our story”

This entry was posted in News and tagged , , , .