With the ninetieth anniversary of the both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising coming up this year, the Republic’s government has a number of things in train. Dermot Ahern speaking the Seanad yesterday introduced a report compiled by his Department for Foreign Affairs on 26 Irish born soldiers in the British Army who were shot for desertion during the First World War.Ahern provides the link between the two historic events:
One testimony from a member of the Irish division caught in a poison gas attack at Loos in 1916 gives an idea of the nature of this war and its overwhelming effect on the young men who found themselves in the middle of every awful aspect of it, namely, the shelling, the trenches, the charges into no-man’s land, the shell-shock and, in this case, the poison gas. He stated:
“Luckily for us, with the rising sun the wind began to change and we immediately counter-attacked and drove the enemy off, but the Dublin Fusiliers had been caught unawares and their casualties were very heavy. When it was over, I had the sad job of collecting and burying the dead. They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark. They were nearly all gassed and I buried about 60 of them in an enormous shell hole.”
A total of 338 Irishmen died in that attack. Tom Kettle, one time Nationalist MP for Tyrone, was killed at the Somme. That year he wrote to the leaders of the Easter Rising stating: “These men will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer.”
It is the intent of the Government that this is not how he or any of the Irishmen who fought in the First World War should be remembered and it is our intention, therefore, to honour their memory. As in the case of those “shot at dawn”, it is our objective to recover their memory from the dishonour that was done to them 90 years ago. It is an act of national solidarity with those of our countrymen who volunteered to fight in a truly terrible war and with the always complex and often tragic experiences of previous generations as a whole. It is the whole range of our experiences across all traditions that has shaped our present from which we are determined to build a shared future on this island never rewriting the past but always seeking to understand it better, and honour the memories, sacrifice and vision of all those who came before.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty