Ireland’s war began early in 1914: not in clashes between the Imperial German Army and soldiers in Irish regiments, as so often believed, but at sea. On August 5, 1914, the cruiser HMS Amphion sank the German minelayer the Königin Luise off the Heligoland Bight. Having taken 45 of her crew aboard, the Amphion then sailed into the Luise’s recently sown minefield and blew up. Among the 150 dead were 21 Germans and 16 Irish crewmen.
So even though at least 2,000 Irishmen died at sea during the war, it is the involvement of Irish soldiers that is usually best remembered, and their first contact with the enemy occurred in the suburbs of the Belgian city of Mons on August 23 1914. The German troops were mostly conscripts and reservists who had been trained not to bypass and then enfilade strong defence positions, but merely to storm them by weight of numbers.
And within the concept that suitable cover for advancing soldiery may be provided by the living entrails, bones and sinews of their human vanguard lay the DNA much of the evil that was to come.
In that first battle, with German losses probably in the region of 5,000, some 258 British soldiers were killed, about 30 of them Irish. They were spread across a number of regiments, some of them non-Irish, but the largest component – 14 enlisted men and four officers – came from the Royal Irish Regiment. One of the dead was John Corri, grandson of the Italian choirmaster of Dublin’s Catholic pro-Cathedral. Two of his cousins were to die in the war – one of them, Eugene Patrick Corri, aged just 16.
The other, George Haydn Corri, (named after the composer) was killed with the Middlesex Regiment in 1917.
One of the four officers to fall in the Mons battle was a Lieutenant John Denys Shine, 19, from Dungarvan, County Waterford, and, like his two brothers, educated at Downside. A second brother, Hugh Patrick, was killed with the Royal Irish Fusiliers the following May. The final brother, James Owen Shine, was killed in the murderous and unforgivably stupid assault on Frezenberg Ridge in August 1917. The three boys were thereafter followed to the grave by their mother, Kathleen Mary, who presumably died of whatever it is that mothers perish from when all their sons
Three Irish Divisions were raised during the war: the non-denominational 10th, the 16th, based largely on Catholic nationalists, and the 36th, based largely on the Protestant Ulster unionist community. However, neither of these two divisions was exclusively one thing or the other, especially as casualties caused units to become more mixed.
The last British or Irish soldier to be fatally wounded in the war was Private Thomas Farrell, from Navan, County Meath, who was shot as his picket of Royal Irish Lancers seized a bridge over the Canal du Nord (not far from where John Shine had fallen) shortly before 11 am, on November 11, 1918. He died the next day, at a field dressing station near Valenciennes. During the 50 months and 20 days between Shine’s and Farrell’s deaths, over 35,000 Irishmen were killed, or around 700 a month. There were at least 44 days on which more than 100 Irishmen were killed, and around half a dozen when hundreds died. These include the German gas attack on the 16th Irish Division in April 1916, in which some 500 Irish soldiers died, the common Calvary for the 16th and 36th Divisions, on August 16 1917, when James Shine lost his life (as did the legendary Irish chaplain, Fr Willie Doyle SJ), and the great German offensive on March 21 1918.
All these Irish soldiers were volunteers. Ireland was spared conscription, initially for political reasons, and then, after the Easter Rising, because opposition to it was so vehement. The political victors of the period of violence that followed the 1916 Rising then did their best to obliterate all memory of the Irish sacrifices in British uniforms, even though these vastly outweighed in blood and suffering the losses caused in Ireland by the Troubles. The ensuing feat of amnesia must surely be one of the greatest and most morally reprehensible deeds of mental architecture ever achieved within a free society. Not merely were the Irish military dead forgotten, but also other events were simply ignored or re-written.
Thus the murderous attack on the Lusitania, which ultimately helped bring the United States into the war, was semi-justified within Irish history books because of the munitions that were unquestionably aboard. It is unlikely that such an attack by the British on a German vessel crammed with Irish people on that same pretext would be so benignly viewed. The sinking of the Leinster, a Royal Mail ferry, in October 1918, with the loss of hundreds of lives, was simply forgotten, even though in its own way, it was highly significant.
In disbelieving rage that the Germans could behaved so barbarously while secret talks were underway, the Americans broke off informal peace-feelers with Berlin. Thus the war was prolonged for up to several days, thereby giving us the numerical palindrome that is forever associated with Armistice Day: the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.
Ireland’s amnesia took on architectural form, too. For decades, respective Irish governments declined to officially open the Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge in Dublin, built to honour Ireland’s dead, and they were allowed to fall into disrepair. By 1980, they had become a Corporation tiphead. When the Irish office of Public Works restored them (following representations by the British Government, and prompted by the Catholic Ulster Unionist politician, John Gorman MC, who died recently) no Irish government representative was present for the official opening in 1986. This obsessive pursuit of lapidary deceit was further expressed with the 1930s erection of a bust to one of nationalist Ireland’s most famous dead, Tom Kettle MP, a lieutenant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who was killed in action on the Somme. A modest statue to him was allowed a place in St Stephen’s Green by Dublin Corporation, only on condition that no reference was made to the circumstances of his death or the fact that he was a British soldier.
Irish political culture reached its moral nadir during the regime of Charles Haughey, a crook and obsessive Anglophobe, who 30 years ago ordered the Irish army to cease its presence, through a tradition of military courtesy, at the Remembrance Sunday service in Dublin. But that same year, the army was ordered to attend a service for the dead of Nazi Germany – a hypocrisy that was so shameful that Irish newspapers could not even bring themselves to report it.
The real turning point in Irish perceptions towards their dead of 1914-18 followed the IRA bombing in 1987 of a Remembrance Day service at Enniskillen, in which 11 civilians died. Even though no Irish government representative attended any of the victim’s funerals, the popular mood was permanently altered. Ordinary Irish people began to challenge the state’s official attitude to Ireland’s war dead.
Soon plans were hatched to erect a memorial tower to the Irish dead at Messen in Belgium, and for the first time the Irish president, Mary Robinson, attended the Remembrance Sunday service in Dublin. Her successor, Mary McAleese, jointly opened the Messen Tower with the Queen in 1998, and three years ago, welcomed Her Majesty to the Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge.
So not merely does Ireland now remember its war dead, but it has now also totally forgotten its own quite shameful amnesia. But ignorance, once abolished, cannot then be mentally reconstructed. For it is not enough not to know; it is also necessary not to know that one doesn’t know, and the feat of mental prestidigitation required to understand the scale of Ireland’s former ignorance is now quite beyond the powers of even that most elastic of organs, the Irish popular imagination.
Kevin Myers is a journalist and author of Watching the Door (Atlantic Books)
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (27/6/14)
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