In Cork on Wednesday night – 11th November – I was proud to be invited to speak at the launch in the City Library of Conal Creedon’s biography of Michael O’Leary, a Victoria Cross recipient from County Cork. Conal had also asked me would I write the Foreword to the book and I said I would.
In writing it I was forced to think about all those from Ireland (including my relations) who fought believing that their sacrifice was for the freedom of small nations.
So, here it is. The book The Immortal Deed of Michael O’Leary is published by Cork City Libraries/Leabharlanna Cathrach Chorcaí.
You can almost feel Conal Creedon’s frisson of excitement at his serendipitous find of an old shoe box containing letters and handwritten speeches by Michael O’Leary, the World War I Irish soldier and Victoria Cross-recipient to whose life and times Conal has become compulsively drawn, through family connections and with the forensic curiosity of a writer beholding the artefacts of a man’s history.
I know that feeling of privilege, having once been given a diary, photographs and love letters written by a young Canadian soldier, my wife Leslie’s great Uncle Bob Conklin. His aura infused every page and ink-written sentence, especially his vows of love to his sweetheart Isobel Howes whom he planned to marry. I held in my hand and read the telegram his mother received from the Director of Records regretting to inform her that on the 29th August, 1918, Bob died of gunshot wounds, sustained at the Battle of Arras. It arrived on 6 September, the day on which Bob would have been 21, just five weeks before Germany sent out her first peace note.
Eerily, because of the delay of mail from the Front, the Conklin family kept receiving letters from Bob after they learnt of his death: “Give my love to all and don’t worry on my account”; “Someday I’ll be able to say what I would like to, I think, if all goes well, and then there won’t be any need to close as follows. Well, my news is finished, so I’ll ring off. I will write mother in a few days. Love to all. Bob.”
Conal’s quest to discover the spiritual DNA of Michael O’Leary is an excursion through beautiful Iveleary-Inchigeelagh in West Cork, its folk and folklore, its mysteries, myths and truths, and the omnipresence of history in our lives. The distant past is actually in touching distance, if you think about it. Michael O’Leary was born in 1888. Seems a long time ago. But my Granny White was born in 1884 and knew people who survived the Famine.
Iveleary-Inchigeela, where Michael O’Leary was born, had a tradition of soldiering going back centuries and – until World War I – the stigma attached to those Irish who “took the Queen’s shilling”, as the pejorative expression goes, was fairly muted because the breadwinner of so many hungry families throughout the length and breadth of Ireland either became dependent on this source of revenue to survive or had to emigrate, with or without loved ones.
O’Leary himself hailed from the rural poor and was reared by his grandmother on a few acres, and so deprivation, along with John Redmond’s powerful rhetoric invoking guilt, duty and reward, explain his decision to voluntarily join the British Army.
It is true that down the centuries Irishmen took up arms in military conflicts in Europe and the Americas, sometimes as mercenaries. But I don’t believe that Irish people are predisposed to belligerency any more than any other people. But the myth of the ‘Fighting Irish’ persists, and I have read claims that Irish warriors invaded Greece with King Darius, served the Pharaohs, acted as body guards for Cleopatra, and crossed the Alps with Hannibal!
Robert Graves (who wrote a fine, revelatory and shocking memoir about his experiences in WWI, Goodbye To All That) immortalised this Irish military tradition in his novel Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, based on the journals of the real life figure of Dublin-born Roger Lamb who as an infantryman in the British Army’s Welsh Fusiliers went off to suppress the American Revolution and was eventually taken prisoner.
But it was General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War who, as far as I can see, invented the nickname “the Fighting Irish” in response to the bravery of The Fighting 69th (the Irish Brigade), formed in New York from Irish immigrants.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that given the prevalence of this military tradition, if not a stoic acceptance of its persistence, that nationalism and republicanism would attempt to recruit those Irish in the British Army and exploit their expertise.
Irish history is littered with examples of soldiers and former soldiers putting to use their military training in the service of Irish freedom. The Fenians had 15,000 men in the British Army, 8,000 in Ireland alone, making nearly a third of the 25,000 troops stationed here. IRA men like Tom Barry and Emmet Dalton were former soldiers. In 1921 Sean Murray, ex-Sergeant Major of the Irish Guards Regiment (O’Leary’s old regiment), was the training officer for the IRA Volunteers in Iveleary.
The IRA during the War of Independence had infiltrated Dublin Castle with its spies (in an ironic reversal for Britain, used to being the spymaster) and had, of course, many allies in the Royal Irish Constabulary providing it with information and intelligence.
Even in more recent times the IRA was quick to recruit ex-soldiers for their military know-how. Former paratrooper Paul Marlowe trained the IRA in 1969, became an IRA member and was subsequently killed on an IRA operation. In 1971 after the introduction of internment the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which claimed a membership of several thousand, was set up in Belfast and other nationalist areas with the stated aim of using their former British Army training to protect their neighbourhoods from attack.
(Incidentally, the first soldier to be killed in the North during the Troubles was Trooper Hugh McCabe, shot dead by the RUC, while defending the Falls Road in August 1969 when he was home on leave from the British Army.)
Ireland was not the only colony to supply Britain with military might. The cannon fodder came from all continents, all colonies, and they sacrificed themselves in all theatres of war without their sacrifices translating into freedom for their nations, big or small.
Why? Why did the Irish fight and die in such large numbers?
One quarter of a million Irishmen (including the UVF’s 36th Ulster Division) marched to war under the British banner. Among them was Michael O’Leary, and 4,000 young men from Cork City and County who were to lose their lives.
Think about that: one quarter of a million Irishmen. The nationalist contingent of the Irish Volunteers, a majority of whom had sided with John Redmond, were led to believe by the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party that in fighting for the freedom of small nations such as Belgium they were advancing and securing Irish claims to Home Rule. Factor in the dependents of these men and the many other Irish people working in war-related service industries and you get a sense of the national involvement, indeed the mass political investment in that war; the mass trust in Britain keeping its promise regarding Home Rule. And you also get a sense of the mass disillusionment (if not shame, but certainly deep and bitter regret) that would follow in the wake of Britain reneging on its promises.
From the unionist point-of-view, their men fought to prevent Home Rule and to maintain the union with Britain for all thirty-two counties or, failing that, for Ulster’s nine counties.
While Carson unionist and Redmond nationalist were away at the Front, the Irish Republican Brotherhood struck at home and at Easter 1916 declared a Republic. The Rising was brutally suppressed – how else could an imperial power react to such audacity.
As Yeats put it, dramatically, succinctly: “All changed, changed utterly.”
The writer, Tom Kettle, who was to be killed in September 1916, was appalled by the actions of Pearse and Connolly, denouncing the Rising as madness. Yet after the murder of his brother-in-law, the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and the executions of the republican leaders, Kettle knew his own position with the British Army at the Somme had lost whatever validity it initially had.
That huge disparity in numbers between, for example, those who fought and died in Dublin during the 1916 Rising (318 rebel and civilian fatalities) and those Irish who died during the disastrous eight-month siege of Gallipoli (2,800) inspired Canon Charles O’Neill, the parish priest of Kilcoo, County Down, to write The Foggy Dew whose lyrics contain these bitter, haunting lines:
‘Twas far better to die ‘neath an Irish sky
Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar
Britain’s betrayal of the estimated 35-50,000 Irish who died (the true figure is unknowable), undermined and destroyed Redmond’s Parliamentary Party which became quickly supplanted by Sinn Féin. Britain’s betrayal shattered and overshadowed the lives of returning war veterans who faced public apathy and animosity in a land experiencing a political revolution.
Support for the republican cause was confirmed by the massive increase in support for Sinn Féin in the December 1918 general election, with 73 elected out of 105 TDs. The suppression Dáil Éireann coincided with the rise of the Irish Republican Army, the War of Independence, Partition and Civil War – the ramifications of which are still with us today.
A new narrative was being written, in Irish blood for Irish freedom, and not for the Empire. The story of the returnees, about what they had endured and sacrificed, the loss of comrades, the bloodshed at the Front hundreds of miles from home, was totally eclipsed by a new reality – raids by the Auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, the British Army, the murders and harassment of the civilian population, Collins’ guerrilla war and the activities of Flying Columns, most famously in West Cork.
Though many ex-servicemen would be shot as spies, and some, like Barry would take their military skills into the fledgling IRA, Conal makes the point that a soldier of valour like Michael O’Leary was free to come and go in rebel Cork where he was held in great respect.
My own grandfather, Granda Jimmy Morrison, from the Falls Road, joined the Royal Flying Corps (later known as the RAF) in 1917 and worked as part of the ground crew. I have no information to suggest that he was ever cold-shouldered in West Belfast after he was demobilised. What I do know was that shortly after his return he was arrested and charged with raising funds for the IRA. He defended himself, was acquitted, went south and joined the National (Free State) Army, deserted, returned to the North (where his 11-year-old brother was killed by a British army lorry in 1922, at the time of partition), and married my grandmother Ellen Pyper.
When the 1939 war broke out he re-joined the RAF and was based in Malta during the Luftwaffe bombardment. Towards the end of WWII my father joined the RAF for a short time and was trained in an aerodrome called Long Kesh (where I would be ‘based’ as a republican internee two decades later!).
I am also aware that my maternal grandfather, Granda Billy White, would not let his own brother Paddy cross the door of his Falls Road home when he returned from WWI. Paddy was told: “Come back when you have taken that uniform off and then you can come in!”
I cannot be sure if there were different attitudes in ‘the North’ (which had yet to be established as the ‘Northern Ireland’ state) than in ‘the South’ towards the returnees. Perhaps, there was a greater forgiveness or generosity or dependence in the North, particularly in Belfast, from nationalists who feared for their safety and would require the skills of these veterans in the event of a crisis (which is what did happen).
Unionists, on the other hand, after 1918, scented victory. It dawned on them that the reality of a Catholic-Protestant, evenly-divided Ulster, temporarily opting out of Home Rule, didn’t give them the monopoly on power which they wanted. The Ulster Unionist Party would subsequently ditch its brethren in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan in return for ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’ in the six counties. Those in the 36th Ulster Division could take pride in their war and what they had achieved. They made the wearing of the poppy synonymous with their cause, thus creating a barrier for nationalists had they wanted to honour their war dead.
Irish people were not the only ones fooled by British promises. In 1914 India was in a state of growing political unrest and the National Congress was seeking independence. Encouraged to believe that the cause of independence, or at least self-government, would be served by fighting for Britain, Indians flocked to the war. But they too were badly let down. It was to be 1947 before India was granted independence (which included the partitioning of the subcontinent).
In the Middle East, in 1916, Britain promised the Arabs (including those in Palestine) “complete and final liberation” if they would rise up against the Turks. After the war Britain reneged on its pledges, drew borders here and there and partitioned the region regardless of the wishes of the local inhabitants.
The Palestinians are still waiting for their independence.
One hundred years distant from these events we who honour Ireland’s patriot dead should feel able to acknowledge the selflessness and patriotism of those thousands of Irish men and women who participated in World War I. They were quite innocent – they were not to know that their victory would be turned into their defeat. Clearly, they were brave and selfless men.
The difficulty, of course, is to separate commemoration and memory of the war dead from support for the British administration in Ireland or the cause of British military adventurism today. Recently, a former Fine Gael Taoiseach, John Bruton, even argued that 1916 was “a mistake”, shouldn’t have happened, and that because Home Rule was on the statute book (albeit suspended for the duration of the war), a Rising was unnecessary.
Some revisionists put up obstacles to republican participation in the act of remembrance through the invective they use. Some seek to create a sense of public guilt. By exploiting the war dead and war veterans, by making often disparaging comparisons between the warfare and sacrifices of those Irish who fought against the British in Ireland and those who fought with the British abroad, they seek to subtly, or explicitly, demonise the IRA, almost a return to the days when captured prisoners Pearse and Connolly were spat on as they were marched through the streets of Dublin.
In the view of these revisionists/partitionists the IRA’s War of Independence should be rejected, its heroes tarnished (and in the process the cause of Irish reunification). Undoubtedly, some of this is related to their discomfort with obvious parallels between the aims, objectives and modus operandi of the IRA during the War of Independence and the IRA’s armed campaign in the North from 1970 until the ceasefire.
We heard similar commentary in 2001 at the re-interment of Kevin Barry and nine other IRA Volunteers in Glasnevin Cemetery, men who had been court-martialled and executed by British forces in 1920–1921.
“Why could they not be exhumed and reburied in private?” asked the Sunday Times. The funerals, wrote Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, will offer “a great boost to those who want us to feel that the only difference between a terrorist and a patriot is the passage of time.” Kevin Myers, also in the Irish Times, complained that the event was all about reaffirming “a single narrative of suffering and sacrifice.”
Such commentators would have Ireland feel guilty about its past, without begging the same moral question of Britain about its disastrous role in Irish affairs. The funerals, they said, “are sending a dangerous signal to impressionable young people” and “will be widely and dangerously misunderstood”. What they actually meant was that “the people are stupid and we have to save them from themselves.”
It was nonsense to suggest that the reburials made Irish people retrospective conspirators to shootings and bombings, or that it legitimised the most recent IRA campaign, or acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. If you were to ask any ex-republican prisoner or former IRA Volunteer to name who influenced their decision the most to join the IRA, the answer would not be Kevin Barry but would be, “a British soldier.”
I decide for myself how to honour those republicans who fought and died for Ireland. I decide for myself how to honour and do justice to those who fought in WWI believing they were fighting for the freedom of small nations, and those who fought fascism during WWII.
Last year in Malta I visited the Siege Bell Memorial overlooking the Great Harbour of Valletta which was erected to honour the 7000 people who were killed during the German bombardment. On a sunny afternoon I sat alone at a table on a small street café, bought a local beer, a type that my Granda might have liked, and toasted the life of one who took part in two wars only to die from emphysema at the age of 61, the age I am now.
Ten years ago my wife and I, her mother Sheila, her sister Wendy and brother-in-law Terry took the road out of Paris, driving for several hours up the A1, past the road to the Somme. We left the main road and went through Arras and out into the expanse of open countryside.
We turned off for the village of Ligny-St Flochel. There, the old church appeared to have tilted from the plumb, its limestone spire pock-marked as if by shells or gunfire, leaving nooks in which bickering crows were nesting. We took a fork to the left and after a few kilometres came upon a small, neatly kept cemetery of almost seven hundred graves. The day was bright but the wind was cold and cutting, leaving us sniffling as we buttoned up our coats.
We had the number of the grave – Plot II, Row F, Number 22 – and it took only a few minutes to find.
Two photographs were found on Bob Conklin when he was killed. Again, I remember holding these precious photographs which had sat next to his heart. One was of his mother and his sisters Dorothy and Isabel feeding some chicks, taken in June 1918 on holiday on the shores of Lake Ontario. The other was of Isobel Howes and on the back of the photo she had written: “How do you like my ‘wedding clothes’? In 1919, Isobel, broken-hearted since Bob’s death a few months earlier, died in the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept Europe after the war.
Wendy bent down and sprinkled over the small plot some earth she had brought from the grave of Bob’s mother and father in Toronto and took a little from Bob’s grave to bring back to Canada. Leslie buried beneath the soil a copy of the photograph of Isobel Howes in her ‘wedding clothes’ that had survived his shooting. Reunited symbolically.
Sheila was unable to speak. Here she was at the grave of her own mother’s adored brother – the first members of Bob’s family ever to visit Ligny-St Flochel. Terry, noticed a metal casket in a nearby wall. It contained weather-proofed notebooks detailing the names, ages and regiments of all the soldiers buried there who had died in trenches or crossing no man’s land in 1918. Another was for comments from visitors.
The date was 26 March 2004 and Wendy entered into the notebook the simple message: “Sorry it took us so long to get here…Thanks.”
And that is what Conal Creedon has done with this book which is really dedicated to the volunteers who risked everything, who suffered physical and psychological wounds, who were ‘forgotten’. It is to those 50,000 who died, and to Michael O’Leary and his comrades who fought for Ireland at the Somme, Guillemont, Ginchy, Messines, Salonika, Gallipoli, Basra and Gaza.
“Sorry it took us so long to get here…Thanks.”