Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Our War: Ireland and the Great War

Edited by John Horne
Royal Irish Academy; 2nd edition, 2008
Edward Brynn, Reviewer

Irish Peace Tower,
Messines Battlefield
Even 15 years ago the Easter Rebellion of 1916 dominated discussion of Ireland's role in World War I. No longer. Historians in Northern Ireland and in the Republic are focusing on the 35,000 Irish soldiers who died fighting for King and Empire in a war at once seen as noble, hellish, midwife to Ireland's nationalists' aspirations, and counter to its vital interests. By commissioning the 2008 Thomas Davis Lectures, Radio Telefis Eireann commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Great War's conclusion with ten examples of superb historical scholarship. The Royal Irish Academy's inspired decision to supplement these lectures with color reproductions of documents, letters, recruitment posters, cartoons, etchings, and other fascinating memorabilia has produced a unique testimony to a chapter in Irish history long marginalized by pain and circumstance.

The editor, Trinity College Dublin's John Horne, sets wartime Ireland in the larger context of the Western Front he has studied so assiduously during the last two decades. Nine colleagues, some long eminent and some new to Irish history, offer poignant, balanced, exceedingly informative essays on many dimensions of Ireland's involvement: the role of women; recruitment; life in the trenches; incarceration; the world of mud, disease, grotesque wounds, and death; haunting postwar memories; inspired rhetoric; vexed and often inept politicians.

Royal Dublin Fusiliers Celebrating a Victory

The text is impressive, the illustrations truly priceless. The callous insensitivity of trench war spills its horrors on an island poorly prepared to handle men shipped home maimed and mentally broken. Dark, grainy photographs of Ireland's streets, indecently cheerful recruiting posters, angry letters evocatively written, poignant appeals for help from families desperately coping with maimed soldier-sons, all bring a new understanding to Ireland's role in the war. Many items come from private collections. Others have languished in archives too infrequently visited.

Our War: Ireland and the Great War is at once a coffee-table book and high scholarship. The footnotes, indexes, and bibliography are comprehensive. The museum-quality paper stock adds luster to the illustrations. The ten essays make no effort to soften the pain of Ireland's wartime experience; heroism is acknowledged but not celebrated; gestures of good will and evidence of ruthless calculation are handled with chilling candor. No book yet published so successfully compels us to come to terms with this most troubling chapter of Irish history.

Originally published in Relevance, Summer 2009

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