IRELAND’S GREAT WAR by KEVIN MYERS ; THE GLORIOUS MADNESS by TURTLE BUNBURY : two reviews

IRELAND’S GREAT WAR KEVIN MYERS LILLIPUT PRESS 248pp €20.00
THE GLORIOUS MADNESS TURTLE BUNBURY GILL & MACMILLAN 338 pp €26.99 e book €18.44
“HE LOST HIMSELF COMPLETELY” BRENDAN KELLY THE LIFFEY PRESS 152 pp €16.95

“Not merely had people forgotten, but they’d forgotten that they’d forgotten.” This, from the opening page of Kevin Myers’ powerful book, was his comment in 1979 on the derelict state of the Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge.

Here are three different but complementary books on the four year conflict which impacted heavily on Ireland, leaving roughly 40,000 young Irishmen dead, with many thousands more wounded or scarred mentally from their experience. By comparison 1400 were killed in the War of Independence, and at most several thousand in the Civil War. Yet until recently Irish participation in the Great War was airbrushed out – except in Northern Ireland – and the dead and their sacrifice ignored or discounted.

Happily this has now changed, as epitomised most recently by Ambassador Dan Mulhall laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. This is due at least in part to the indefatigable efforts, over many years, of Kevin Myers to focus public attention on the issue and challenge the policy of official neglect. His book, a compilation of articles and lectures delivered in recent years, with one piece going back to 1980, reflects this. Myers points up the scale of volunteering in the first years of the War across all creeds and political affiliations and then recounts the ebbing of support after 1916 and the subsequent re-writing of history.

Several chapters on the impact of the war on different counties help bring into focus and humanise what was a mini-holocaust, with an average of one hundred Irishmen dying each day the war lasted, including two of the very last casualties. Taking two examples, almost four hundred Sligo men died during the conflict, while the figure for Kerry was 718, with 340 from Tralee alone. Again, all classes and creeds were affected. The impact on small communities across Ireland was huge, yet afterwards the dead were unacknowledged, those returning ignored or even pilloried. In Sligo, for example, the only annual commemorations were for the nineteen IRA men slain in the War of Independence. Selective amnesia about the Great War became the norm.

The horrors of the trenches, the squalor, the terrible deaths of the Irish are described in detail in Myers’ characteristically unsparing prose. Some of the multiple deaths among families are recounted, again across the classes. There are separate chapters on Francis Ledwidge and Robert Gregory, the Irish Airman immortalised and romanticised in Yeats’ poem.

The chapter on Gallipoli corrects a few of the myths but the reality remains equally shocking. The fate of the Dublin Fusiliers attempting to storm the Kiritch Tepe Sirt ridge, as recounted by Myers, is particularly memorable. The cull on that hillside included, among the Pals of the Footballers (drawn from the IRFU), a TCD professor of law and the chief botanist from the Botanic Gardens, killed with the others in a bayonet charge uphill against machine guns.

Myers points out that , to match the legendary – and much commemorated – losses of the 36th Ulster Division on the Somme (2000 dead) , should be set the even greater – but unacknowledged – losses (2700) of the 16th (nationalist) Irish Division. One of them, Tom Kettle, killed in 1916, his head cradled by eighteen year old Emmet Dalton, who did the same for the dying Michael Collins a few years later, is given special mention. Remembered now chiefly for his sonnet to his daughter, he was perceptive enough to comment that “Pearse and the others will go down in history as heroes and I will be just a bloody English officer.”

Tom Kettle and Emmet Dalton feature also in Turtle Bunbury’s excellent “ Glorious Madness,” which is a fitting complement to Myers’ work. The title is a quote by Woodbine Willie, a chaplain of Irish descent, later a noted pacifist, who dispensed bibles and cigarettes to the troops, and who later wrote there were “no words foul and filthy enough to describe” war.

Glorious Madness is splendidly illustrated with fascinating period photographs and reproductions . It comprises a collection of detailed anecdotes on scores of the more prominent Irish involved in the war , including chaplains and airmen, together with accounts of some of the battles and skirmishes in which they participated. Of particular note is Tom Barry, who fought in Iraq, honing the skills he would later impart to training the West Cork Flying Column after 1919.

There’s even a chapter on Captain “Hoppy” Hardy, British ace escaper, later ace interrogator, who earned notoriety subsequently as the probable torturer of both Kevin Barry and Ernie O’Malley and as the murderer of comedian Brendan O’Carroll’s grandfather in 1920. Hardy escaped Collins’ hitmen on Bloody Sunday.

Brendan Kelly’s book is a reminder that many returned from the front physically unscathed but mentally shattered. Written by one of Ireland’s most eminent psychiatrists, the book charts the treatment of 362 shell shocked soldiers in Dublin’s Richmond War Hospital between 1916 and 1919.From the anecdotes in the final chapter, including one quoting Gay Byrne on his father’s nightmares, it is clear that many thousands more were profoundly disturbed and haunted throughout their lives by that terrible conflict.
07/12/14

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