Reflections on the first two weeks of Irish Lives

A sectarian riot in Belfast, 1920.
A sectarian riot in Belfast, 1920.

We are three weeks into Irish Lives and at the half way mark. But I’m still behind, only completing a third of the course so far. I started at the beginning of Week 2 and thought it wouldn’t take me long to catch up. But I didn’t finish Week 2 until today. I’d say I’ve done six to eight hours a week so far, which is more than the recommended dosage, but it’s taking me longer expected to go through the material.

This is no fault of the lecturers. Prof Ciaran Brady in Week 1 and Dr Anne Dolan in Week 2 have skilfully steered the course through fascinating traffic. The “problem” they have offered is a voluminous set of digitised primary sources, wonderful first-hand texts now within reach of anyone with internet access. It’s proving buried e-treasure.

I said Week 1 was a straightforward chronology of the events. What I didn’t immediately pick up was why the course was called “Irish Lives” and not, say, “Irish History”. People are the focus not great events, though every person was deeply affected by those events, in Ireland and overseas.

Week 1 placed Ireland in the context of world affairs. War mattered to Ireland between 1914 and 1923 but so did culture. Films like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid preoccupied in Ireland in 1921 as much as independence did. Todd Andrews was a young man when he fought in that war, a story he tells in his autobiography “Dublin Made Me”. Andrews’ memories of the first 20 years of the 20th century say as much about working-class Dublin’s preoccupations with football (Bohs or Shels) and cricket (Kent or Surrey) as they did about changing the government. The Irish were part of the world’s biggest empire and they absorbed the correct British attitudes to the “Fuzzy Wuzzies, Niggers and Indian Nabobs”. Dubliners knew more about Belfast than they did about Cork. Dublin was a British city no different to Manchester and Birmingham save in one crucial respect: it was mainly Catholic.

For Protestant Belfast, Home Rule in Dublin was anathema and the Curragh Mutiny proved it would never be imposed on them by force. The First World War gave everyone the chance to support their monarch for their own reasons. The monarchs Willy, Nicky and Georgie conducted a family spat at the cost of millions of lives, but each each of those lives had their own reasons for being in battle.

If Prof Brady’s approach in Week 1 was a “great man of history theory”, Dr Dolan’s approach in Week 2 went into lesser histories to find out what it meant to fight. We moved away from “the stylised wars of our imagination” to examine the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. What motivated them?

She offered places to find the answers, including important secondary sources preaching down the history of Ireland. But better still are the primary sources; the words, stories, images and art of the people who lived in those times. Those people are almost all dead now but these Irish Lives live on in bits and bytes: at RTE Archives, the Bureau of Military History, British Pathé and National Library of Ireland – all have rich databases, some are haunting. British Pathé pictures of Belfast refugees fleeing the riots of 1920 reminded me of people in Aleppo and Homs in today’s Syria.

Some stories are extremely detailed. The testimony of Collins’ primary intelligence agent at Dublin Castle Eamon Broy is over 100 pages long and a gripping insight into how those who fought in 1919-1921 learned from earlier conflicts. Broy joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police to pursue his love of athletics and he was careful to draw a distinction between it and the RIC. The DMP was paid partially for out of the rates so Dubliners did not consider it a “British” police force unlike the paramilitary RIC (and its network of spies) that kept order in the countryside. Broy and many other DMP officers had republican sympathies and he was a crucial source of information to the rebellion. Broy and Collins laid out a plan to “melt down” the RIC and its network of spies to overcome “British Providence” that so cursed the planning of previous Irish revolutions.

The testimony of Dungarvan revolutionary John Riordan was fascinating for different reasons. I was attracted to his story as a fellow Waterford man and Riordan spent nearly all of the period in military activities. He signed up to the British Army in 1914, fought and was injured at the Somme in 1916 and when the war was over, he was posted to quell a rebellion in Egypt. Riordan was silent about what he thought of Egyptians rebels. Did he see them as Niggers and Nabobs like Andrews or independence seekers like he was about to come? In 1919 Riordan took off his British uniform and went back to Co Waterford to join the “Volunteers”. His military experience was invaluable and he took part in successful operations at Piltown (near Dungarvan) and Cappoquin. He was also involved in the only operation in East Waterford in that war: at Pickardstown outside Tramore on a cold winter’s night of January 6, 1921. That ambush was a failure and a perfect example of the fog of war. Someone in another platoon fired too early leaving Riordan’s men confused with nothing to aim at. “We were ‘in the dark’ in every sense of the word,” Riordan said. “Nobody seemed to know exactly what was happening”.

Yet there were people who knew exactly what was happening and they used both blatant and subtle messages to get their point across. The British government knew they needed men for their war and they lured people in with decent pay and the prospect of a bit of excitement. For those that needed more encouragement “Pals battalions” sprung up so volunteers could go to war with their buddies. The nationalism messages were specific to Irish concerns. Posters encouraged people to go to France “for Ireland”.

It was no surprise the Irish Free State government quickly learned the value of propaganda of doing things “for Ireland”. In 1922 they issued handbills criticising the anti-Treaty fighters with a cartoon showing them hiding under the bed during British rule. The message they were cowards who fought against their own. The rebels responded with menace: grim pictures of dead men in Irish fields, and public warnings against anyone thinking of executing the hiding de Valera.

Whether it was at Gallipoli or Galway, war was a dangerous place, but was also wonderfully exciting. Many soldiers worried it would be all over before they got there. It didn’t take long for the bloody conflict to dispel their sense of adventure. Emmet Dalton’s Royal Dublin fusiliers lost 800 men at the Somme in one day, a death toll far out of proportion to the battle’s objectives. “When we finished, I marched out with 98 men out of 929 that went in,” he said. Dalton was proud of his service for the Crown but like Riordan he returned to play a big part in the War of Independence and Civil War.

Dr Dolan said both of these wars were civil wars pitting Irish people against Irish. The Royal Irish Constabulary were hated symbols of British oppression but its men were mostly Irish Catholic. The furtive nature of those wars left its participants jumpy and shooting at shadows. The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries saw all the Irish as hostile Shinners but they killed more cows in the dark than people. This was a dirty war with dirty tactics on every side. If the British did not like themselves in Ireland, the Irish too had their demons with many suffering nightmares from the killings they did.

There were other kinds of fighting that did not involve guns or bullets: women fighting for voting rights and prisoners wanting political treatment. Hunger strikes, force feeding and the ceremonies of death all played their part. Funerals especially were great fodder for inspiring martyrdom. Pearse’s graveside oration for the old revolutionary Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1914 was a masterclass in stirring up support for the nationalist movement. The British fools had left the Irish their Fenian dead, Pearse intoned, and holding these graves, “Ireland shall never be at peace”.

Pearse’s own martyrdom in 1916 was a powerful war aphrodisiac while even peace-loving cardinals and prelates jostled for position at the funeral of another rebel Terence MacSwiney. The British too knew the value of ceremony by laying out the bodies of its Bloody Sunday dead in Westminster Abbey. The rite was so powerful the Free State held onto the bodies of anti-treaty rebels until the war ended for fear of the impact the funerals might have.

Many Irish paid with their lives like 16-year-old Belfast girl Ethel Burrows out on a Saturday night with friends and shot dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or Michael Collins at 31, chasing republican shadows at Béal na Bláth. As bitter as Ireland’s troubles were they took place in a period of extraordinary violence across Europe. Ireland was dangerous by British standards but not by the standards of the Western Front or the Balkans, Turkey, Russia or the Middle East.

Those who survived were scarred by the fighting, many carrying a bitterness towards enemies, real and perceived, to their dying days. The British irregulars went home frustrated they couldn’t have a free hand to solve the Shinners problem, Free Staters could not forgive rebels while the rebels could never forgive the new Ireland for not matching their vision of it.

De Valera survived the war to dominate Catholic Ireland’s politics for another 40 years. Eamon Broy helped shape the new Free State as head of the Garda SíochánaTodd Andrews led Bord na Móna and the CIE while Emmet Dalton became a successful filmmaker. War was a dangerous furnace but for many, fighting forged their future.

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