A Long Way to Tipperary: The Irish in the First World War

08 Aug 2017

‘The Irish are out in force’: it was a rainy summer day on the fields of the Somme, and they were very young, in their early teens, in fact. However, this was not 1916, but 2016, when the centenary of one of the bloodiest battles in history attracted an international crowd, including large contingents of school children from the Republic. In contrast to the 50th anniversary, which, in 1966, had been a ‘Unionist’ commemoration – claimed by the Northern Irish loyalists as their own, while the survivors of the Southern veterans kept their heads down and suppressed this part of their past – in 2016, the conflict was widely construed as an inclusive experience, which saw men and women giving their lives ‘for Ireland’ even when fighting ‘for King and Empire’. A generation ago this would have shocked traditional nationalists, who regarded the Great War as an ‘English’ one, in contrast to the Easter Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. However, European integration and the Peace Process gradually brought about a different mindset. Among historians, it was the late Keith Jeffery who spearheaded the revision of our perception of Ireland's standing in the war. This reassessment was further developed in 2008, with John Horne's editing Our war, a volume jointly published by RTÉ (the Irish broadcasting company) and the Royal Irish Academy, in which ten of the leading historians of the period – including Keith Jeffery, Paul Bew, David Fitzpatrick, and Catriona Pennell – presented Ireland as a protagonist, rather than merely a victim of British imperialism. By 2016, this new understanding had largely reshaped both government and public perceptions, with ‘the emergence of a more tolerant and flexible sense of Irish identity’. This has been confirmed by the largely consensual nature of the war centenary commemorations. While Dublin took the initiative, Northern Ireland's Sinn Féin leaders were ready to follow suit with the then deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, visiting the battlefield of the Western Front to honour the memory of the Irish dead, and the Speaker of the Belfast Assembly, Mitchel McLaughlin, and his party colleague, Elisha McCallion, the mayor of Derry and Strabane, laying wreaths at the local war memorials.