Long Forgotten Irish Heroes of War
A Cork Suburb and Ireland’s Great War 1914–1918.
‘Blackpool to the Front!’ was a rallying cry first heard at Étreux in August 1914 when the Royal Munster Fusiliers halted an entire German Army Corps. The experience of the hundreds who enlisted from the industrial Cork suburb of Blackpool mirrors the experience of the 200,000 Irishmen who joined up.At least sixty-nine Blackpool men made the ultimate sacrifice: factory workers, sons,husbands and fathers. Some enlisted to escape poverty, some to defend ‘the rights of small nations’. They fought in France, Flanders, Gallipoli, Palestine and on the high seas. This is their story.
The book Blackpool to the Front has just been released by Collins Press. It is a commemoration of the men from Blackpool, Cork who died as a result of the Great War, 1914–1918. Fifty-three were soldiers, six were with the Royal Navy and ten were merchant seamen. There may be more Blackpool men who died in the war but my subject matter involves only those who had a known connection to the area. While my hope is to commemorate these sixty-nine men who gave the greatest sacrifice in one of the most defining events in modern history, my aim is also to set out that history and explain the participation of these men. As such, it has been a journey of discovery.
The history of Blackpool that modern generations have learned is deeply wedded to a republican rebelliousness that was embodied in Tomás MacCurtain and the Delaney brothers, Jer and Con, and their roles in the War of Independence. Their murders by branches of the British forces were perceived as the ultimate sacrifice made in the centuries-old struggle to rid Ireland of British rule and were the most notable political events in Blackpool’s history. It was therefore disturbing to discover that on nearly every street in Blackpool not only had numerous men fought in the British army in the First World War, but many had died. Growing up in Blackpool I had no idea that men in significant numbers had left these very streets to fight and die in foreign fields and seas. I was vaguely aware of my grandfather’s own participation in the Great War but it held no ritual place in my family upbringing which was largely ahistorical in its engagement with the world. My awareness of the First World War, through school and cultural references, was very limited and fragmented, and certainly bore no relation to the streets of Blackpool. As a community, Blackpool had forgotten these men, an amnesia that was replicated all over southern Ireland and most particularly in urban areas.
I asked myself how a community could forget such a grievous wound. I had picked up on some of the answers already: men had joined the British army out of financial necessity and become mercenaries. They were deluded and duped into joining the colonising army of the British. The war was a war among empires and was not Ireland’s war. These particular reasons for forgetting were also entwined with a broader international understanding of the First World War as a colossal and futile waste of human life. The 10 million military deaths coupled with the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties gave a profoundly tragic perspective that made the outbreak of the war itself appear the result of the hubris of empires. This pacifist rejection of the war gained a kind of cultural orthodoxy even in Britain as early as the late 1920s and in this context it would help explain how southern Irish amnesia in relation to the war could have more easily developed. This was given even greater credence when the Second World War broke out as the ‘war to end all wars’ failed to prevent the outbreak of another war of even greater brutality and inhumanity. Importantly, the First World War lacked the clear-cut moral dimension that a war against Nazi fascism had and whose impact dominated Europe for decades thereafter. But of course the fundamental reason behind this Irish amnesia was that those who led Ireland to independence and now governed the new Irish state had rejected totally Irish involvement in aid of Britain in the Great War and, in fact, had been broadly sympathetic to Germany and others, ‘their gallant allies in Europe’.
‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ was the dictum that led a significant minority of extreme Irish nationalists, which included aspects of the Labour movement under Connolly, to launch the Easter Rising of 1916 which would eventually shatter the political binds of Edwardian Irish politics. Their ‘Great War’ was not in Europe but the 750 hundred years of the Saxon yoke of which they were the latest representatives in the struggle for Irish liberty. Their pro-German rhetoric was tactical, propagandistic in trying to discredit Britain, and subservient to the goal of complete Irish independence. This pro-Germanism was easily discarded and de-emphasised once victory for the Allies had been achieved and especially as the United States under President Wilson was one of the victors. In biographies of Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney the Great War is a moral blank, a distant event whose reasons belong to other realms, while the only references to the British soldiers of the Great War were in the form of atrocities committed by them in the guise of the Black and Tans during the War of Independence.
In this context it is easy to understand how the sacrifice of those men from Blackpool, and from all over Ireland, could have been forgotten. They were on the wrong side of history, it has been written; perhaps they were on the wrong side of Irish history but in the context of world history they were not. They were part of the victorious armies of Britain, France and America who tried to forge new democratic states and witnessed the deposing of a number of monarchs and emperors. The Irish soldiers themselves saw the war in terms of a historic clash between civilisations where freedom and liberty for all were at stake. The war was interpreted in this manner and they, by and large, agreed that this was so. The inscription on the war memorial in Cork is a testament to that perception as it declares that they fought for ‘the Freedom of Small Nations’. Whether Irish soldiers joined up because of financial necessity or not is a discussion largely borne out of the contested interpretation of the war within Irish society. In other countries where a national consensus is held on the war this question is confined to academia but in Ireland it is used to dismiss the contradictions in not only Irishmen but Irish nationalists joining the British army. For it was nationalist leaders like John Redmond and William O’Brien from Cork who at the start of the war declared that it was a war to free and liberate Belgium and it was the soldiers at the end who declared that they had fought for the freedom of small nations. This of course included the small nation of Ireland.
The failure of John Redmond to achieve Home Rule and institute Ireland as an independent political entity obviously seriously undermined the possibility that participation in the war could have had a vibrant and real meaning in Irish society. The Home Rule movement was, unsurprisingly, nationalistic in tone and rhetoric. Its usurpation by Sinn F.in after 1918 hides their shared political lineage. In fact the Civil War was fought, in part, over whether the treaty was in reality just an enhanced Home Rule Bill or not. The nationalistic credentials of the Irish Party might have been purposely obscured as a means of justifying and vindicating the death and destruction that the War of Independence and Civil War entailed. Can it not be argued that, had Redmond and the Irish Party been firmly in control of Ireland politically and socially in December 1918, a Home Rule parliament would have been set up? And would not a Home Rule parliament have been, as Michael Collins said for the Treaty, a stepping stone to a Republic? Of course they could not foresee the future but subsequent history has taught us that it could have been if Irish people had persisted in that desire. Ireland could have declared itself a republic in 1948 after thirty years of a Home Rule parliament, just as India did at that time. What price the War of Independence and the Civil War? The issue of partition was an emotive one but here again it is forgotten that for Redmond and the Irish Party a unified Ireland was a fundamental part of their politics. Redmond recognised that the establishment of some sort of separate northern Irish political entity was necessary to achieve a peaceful solution to the Irish Question. It was a compromise that all nationalists, north and south, had to make to create the current peace process.
These are important questions and considerations because they are directly related to why those Irish soldiers in the British army are not seen as heroes as undoubtedly they would have been if a Home Rule parliament had been set up. We would resemble France and Britain, I imagine, with our local memorials dotted here and there in honour and remembrance of the contribution and sacrifice they made in the Great War. Instead we have those dedicated to the War of Independence either between 1919 and 1921 or the 1798 Rebellion. Ironically, a Home Rule Ireland would have venerated 1798 as well, as their ‘heroics’ could be lauded a hundred years on as a violent reaction to injustice in a pre-democratic age but in the contemporary age of Home Rule and the advance of Parliamentary democracy, Parnellism would lead the way to freedom. To understand those men from Blackpool who joined the army and fought in the war we have to understand the post-Parnellite Ireland that emphasised all the historical wrongs done to Ireland by Britain, as did Irish national separatists, yet sought Home Rule as its salvation.
There were powerful centrifugal forces at work in Edwardian Ireland that kept Ireland within the British Empire and only a war of the magnitude of the Great War and importantly its wearying duration weakened these forces and allowed the separatists Sinn Féin to emerge and dominate. It was probably urban Ireland that was most receptive to the draw of the Empire and moderated any extremism regarding separatism or republicanism. Daniel Corkery alludes to this in a preface to Florrie O’Donoghue’s biography of Tomás MacCurtain. He writes of the ‘rootless’ aspect of Irish urban life in contrast to rural culture that cherished and cultivated an awareness of Irish traditions in music, song and stories.3 Tomás MacCurtain came from Mourne Abbey, County Cork. Cities are by their nature more ‘rootless’ or, less disparagingly, more cosmopolitan than life in the countryside. Interestingly it was the use of the word ‘cosmopolitan’ to describe the distant concern of the war in Europe to Irish people and in particular Irish country people from Connemara in October 1915 by Bishop Delaney of Limerick that marked the first tear in the fabric of official Ireland’s support for the war effort and emboldened further public opposition.4 Irish cities, Cork included, were receptive to the cosmopolitan influences that came with the British Empire and globalisation in general. The culture of Vaudevillian-type entertainment, song and dance, and the growth of cinema were clearly established in Cork and popularly enjoyed.
The British Empire as a dynamic trading and commercial system that spanned the globe had, of course, a financial appeal. Cork being a port city relayed the goods of the empire in and exported Irish produce out: it built its trading links and established commercial ties with various British people and places. A powerful symbol and presence of the British Empire was the British army and no more so than in a large town like Cork with Victoria Barracks. The sight and sound of English, Welsh and Scottish soldiers around the streets of Cork not only brought benefits to the local service industry, it was also a direct reminder of the interconnectedness of the Empire and the union with Britain.
Some of these soldiers settled down within the communities of Cork and socialised; probably telling stories in the pubs of Cork of death-defying feats in India and Africa. My own great-grandfather and grandmother were such a soldier family from England who eventually settled in Cork and had a house in Dillons Cross. These military and commercial connections to the Empire coupled with the peaceful democratic (partial but expanding with the years) political system which governed through the rule of law created powerful forces of inertia within Irish society for a moderate nationalist stance in relation to the Imperial Question. It was harder to create the dichotomy of nationalism between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in urban areas than in the more isolated (and romantic) rural Ireland where the Irish soil got under one’s nails. But there was also the question of practicality. The British Empire was considered, though dented by the Boer War, to be a very formidable foe. Physical-force nationalism in Ireland pre-1916 was lauded from afar but dismissed in the present as foolish, dangerous, anarchical and ineffectual. The Great War would change this. In the light of these considerations I hope to explore Blackpool, this historic suburb of Cork city, in relation to the Great War and in particular to relate the story of the First World War through the participation of its soldiers, sailors, seamen, clergy, and its industrial input to the war effort. Blackpool is probably emblematic of other urban areas in southern Ireland, which were predominantly Catholic and Nationalist, in so far as one can relate the whole history of the Great War – from the history of the Great War – from the great battles of the Western Front, to the Gallipoli, Balkans and Palestine fronts, to the great naval battles of the war as well as the war against merchant shipping – through its sons that fell. Every major decision made by British High Command, and in a lot of cases German High Command, had a direct effect on communities like Blackpool. Every painful twist of the war brought more tragedy to the locality. The only significant area of the war in which Blackpool men did not die was in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, then part of the Turkish Empire) and in the air. I have no doubt that there were Blackpool men who fought with Tom Barry in Mesopotamia as there were pilots for the Royal Flying Corps (RAF in 1918) but their identities have escaped my search.
This book aims to give a local perspective on the Irish contribution to the Great War and will hopefully add to the growing body of historical work that has, finally, shone a light on a shaded part of our past. A reason for this has undoubtedly been the peace process in Northern Ireland which has opened up a willingness to look at our respective pasts in a more empathic manner. But it is also a result of our more individualistic, consumerist and globalised society, which has diluted our sense of the past and its meaning to us. One indicator of this has been the sight of the insignias of British football teams being inscribed on the gravestones of Irish people. These people might not be any less Irish but seem to have a more layered, sophisticated array of identities in this fast-paced, information-loaded, 21st-century world. In that respect they might have shared something in common with those Irishmen who joined the British army and fought in the Great War, when Irish identity or identities were more fluid and plural and joining the British army was not incompatible with Irish nationalism. Maybe the post-Cold War modern world is more akin to the Edwardian world than at any other time in the last hundred years and our membership of the EU might have resembled, at least faintly, membership of the British Empire then.
This, however, is primarily a memorial to the men from Blackpool who died in the war: for the ten merchant seamen who went to work with no belligerence in mind and lost their lives on the seas; for the fifty-three soldiers and six navy men who went to war to protect Europe from a military domination that had trampled on the rights of small nations. They formed part of the biggest army of Irishmen that ever was or ever will be, the majority of whom were Irish nationalists who fought not only to protect Ireland but also to contribute to the establishment of an independent Ireland. They died on foreign fields and on the seas and were remembered in foreign lands. This book aims to rectify the neglect which the memory of these men has suffered. It is my hope that the complexity of Irish history is more fully appreciated and the sacrifice made in our name is acknowledged.
Want to read more? You can buy the book here.
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