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Lest we forget: the Fighting Irish and the Great War

Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill reviews Lest We Forget: the fighting Irish and the Great War by Brendan Clifford, Aubane Historical Society, €5 (stapled A4 pamphlet, pp.15)

ON THIS evidence Brendan Clifford is a challenging and entertaining writer.

He confronts the Irish government's seónínism in its repudiation of history and in its attempt to resuscitate the 1914 British war-propaganda myth of 'The Fighting Irish'. In the process, he reproduces several poems, an imposing front-page recruitment poster from The Freeman's Journal, 30 October 1915. His pièce de résistance is a rigorous analysis of an 1915 publication by Hugh Law, MP for West Donegal: Why Is Ireland at War?

In 2008, the president of Ireland opened an official 'Peace Park' in Mayo, which has the paradoxical purposes: the celebration of war and of Irishmen who were killed in various conflicts, usually fighting for the British Empire, doing unto others what had been done unto themselves and their kin. (Barnett, 1970: Britain and Her Army.)

A proponent of this enterprise cited the example of a "Connaught" Ranger who "did his duty, as all soldiers do." Assuming that it is not an insult, this begs the question: how ignorant can one be of military life, law or history?

Before conscription, the rank and file of British army was universally despised; appropriately the Irish had for centuries subscribed a disproportionately large number of recruits. (Spiers, 1999: The Late Victorian Army 1868-1902; Lawrence, 2002: Warrior Race: a history of the British at War) They were "…hardy and brave… [and] ignorant, mad for drink, violent and without self-discipline." (Barnett, 1970) (At least stereotyping is avoided!)

As the Great War approached, it became obvious that Britain needed an army on a European scale. About this time, its strength was about the same as Germany's annual in-take of conscripts. The moment when it was realised that "hardy and brave" cannon fodder would be needed can be seen in the fervently Unionist press.

On 30 July 1914, the Times, under the composite headline 'CLOSE RANKS: Appeal for Irish settlement: Amending Bill today: Funeral of the Dublin Victims,' dismissed the funerals of the Bachelors' Walk casualties in just 21 words. [Up to then it had tended to refer to "The Dublin Riots".]

Britain's chief honorary Irish recruiting sergeant, John Redmond MP, made the romance of the 'Irish Brigade' fashionable. The Times (18 August 1914) ludicrously declared Fontenoy: "a defeat more glorious than many victories. But there we were fighting against ourselves." "The Fighting Irish" had "arrived", no doubt, still "ignorant, mad for drink, violent and without self-discipline."

Among the poetry and prose of war propaganda, Brendan Clifford quotes Kipling's panegyric, The Irish Guards. Like the journalists of the Times, Kipling reviled the Gaeil. A Freemason, he condemned them for their "despotism of secret societies"; he contributed £30,000 to the Ulster Volunteer Force.

When his seventeen year-old son failed the medical examinations for the navy and for the army, Kipling turned to his friend and great Irishman, Field-Marshal Roberts, Earl of Kandahar, Pretoria and Waterford, colonel-in-chief of the Irish Guards and fellow supporter of the UVF.

Jack was commissioned in that regiment but had "fallen" within a year. To-day, John Kipling is commemorated on Irish Guards websites, for being John Kipling. Perhaps the unfortunate Irishmen, who served under the command of this unfit English schoolboy, will be celebrated in the Peace Park.

Uncharacteristically, Brendan Clifford appears to have offered a hostage to fortune in following:

"All [Britain's] wars are Manichaeen struggles of Good against Evil. It does not allow secular conflict of interest to be a sufficient reason for making war."

Evidence supports the remark attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: "England is a nation of shopkeepers". The Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, were fought by "world's first narco nation" for profit. "China was defeated and was forced in consequence to accept a much greater degree of intercourse with the world". (Marshall: undated)

Perhaps the annals of the Peace Park might record that another great Irishman, Field Marshal Lord Gough fought in the first Opium War, but as a lowly major-general.

And what should be recorded of his grandson, Brigadier-General Hubert de la Poer Gough, acclaimed as leader of the Curragh Mutiny, which confirmed to the UVF that it had the backing of the British officer class?

The list could be long. For example it could include Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson and his underhand exploits and the adventures of Captain James Craig's unit at Lindley in second Boer War.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2009-05-17 15:47:41.
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