For decades in this Free State/26 Counties/Republic, to openly discuss the role played by Irishmen in the First World War was a bona fide conversation killer. It just didn’t happen.
To many, those who took up arms in British uniform between 1914 and 1918 were traitors, plainly and simply. There was simply no room for an opposing view.
For me, adopting such a view is about as myopic as describing the men of 1916 as nothing more than a vainglorious, rabble rousing shower of hoodlums.
The entangled web that history weaves means, more often than not, that the truth is neither black nor white, but a litany of different greys.
And given that the first casualty of any war is the truth, any attempt to honour the Irish who fought in The Great War can only be welcomed.
‘A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall’ is arguably the finest modern effort to record the tales of the Irish who fought in the greatest concentrated slaughter in human history.
The brainchild of author Neil Richardson, whose own great-grandfather fought in the trenches, the book is a stunning piece of research, delving into many an archive on these islands, including this newspaper’s.
The Irish were, per head of population, the most represented fighting nation during World War I, with most historians putting the numbers in uniform at approximately 200,000.
But, as Richardson tellingly points out, there were 300,000 other WWI servicemen born to Irish parents, never mind all the other ‘undocumented’ Irish of the time who worked in British munitions factories.
Yes, there were those who answered Waterford MP John Redmond’s call to do their bit to bring about Home Rule for Ireland, yes there were those fighting out of loyalty to the crown.
Add to that those southerners who fought to liberate Catholic Belgium from the forces of the Kaiser but forget not those who also enlisted to earn a shilling and feed their families.
Of course, setting the sons of Ulster to one side, there’s no way of knowing how these motivations would have broken down on a pie chart.
But I’d confidently lay a wager that most of those who fought did so to escape Dublin and Belfast’s decaying tenements, the workhouse, even the seminary.
Waterfordians, along with many more men from the south east, feature in Richardson’s beautifully designed book.
Among them were Abbeyside surgeon John Shine, who had also treated wounded soldiers in the Third Burmese War and subsequent Boer War.
Aged 55 when the Great War broke out, Colonel Shine spent most of the conflict in the Ypres sector, where over 900,000 men died in the three separate battles fought there.
There, writes Richardson, he treated “horrendous wounds, amputating shattered arms and legs, removing lumps of shrapnel from bone, standing for hours on blood-stained floors, and watching young men die by the thousand”.
Like many families where a father had served, the Shine household’s three sons followed suit in going to war.
They were: Second Lieutenant John Shine of the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, Second Lieutenant John Shine of the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and Captain James Shine of the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
On August 25th 1914, John Shine was killed in action, two days after the Battle of Mons (the war’s first major battle), where the valour of Westmeath man Maurice Dease earned him the war’s first Victoria Cross.
On May 25th 1915, Hugh Shine was also killed in action. He is honoured at the Menin Gate Memorial (at Ypres), and is just one of the 410,000 WWI British service personnel with no known grave.
James Shine, his parents’ last surviving son, lost his life on August 16th 1917 at the outbreak of the Third Battle of Ypres. He is commemorated at the Tyne Cot memorial.
“When Colonel James Shine returned home to Dungarvan after the war, now aged fifty-nine, he left every single one of his children behind him.”
It’s estimated that between 35,000 and 50,000 Irishmen died during ‘the war to end all wars’.
The unveiling of the Messines Peace Tower in 1998 marked the first time that an Irish government formally recognised all Irishmen, north and south, Catholic and Protestant, who fought together in World War I.
“These too are Ireland’s children as those who fought for her independence are her children, and those who fought against each other in our country’s civil war – and of course the dead of recent decades – their children’s children – who have not known the peace for which they yearned. To each let us give his or her acknowledged place among our island’s cherished dead.”
Those were the concluding words of President McAleese at the opening of the Peace Tower, capturing a sentiment superbly articulated by Neil Richardson in his magnificent book.
He writes: “The best way to understand the Irishmen who fought in the First World War is to remember them, to finally acknowledge what they went through and allow their stories to be told.”
Neil Richardson should rest easy, as he’s achieved that very feat. They shall not be forgotten.
‘A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall’ is published by O’Brien and is priced €19.99.