Thursday, August 07, 2014

Did Ireland Win the First World War?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

There are so many events commemorating World War I this month that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ireland won the thing.

Last week saw a Nationwide special on the four Irish regiments that participated in the war, and this week sees a TV series broadcast over two nights called “My Great War”. There’s also a panel discussion to be chaired by John Bowman after the second episode of “My Great War” where we discuss the war and what we can learn from it. We will discuss it sensibly, as a nation. Just like we always do.

Because Irish culture has never been so influenced by that of the United Kingdom since we theoretically severed our links with the mainland, it’s important to notice that two strands are being woven into the World War One narrative in the media that swirls around us, all day, every day.

The first strand is the narrative of the war itself; that it happened, how it happened, how and where it was fought, and all that. Most of this is coming from the UK, and is very interesting for those interested in that period of history.

The second strand, however, is very particular to Ireland. That narrative is being spun like a top and it’s important to be aware that spinning is going on.

This second narrative posits that World War One was a ‘just’ war, fought for honorable reasons, and that the soldiers who served in Irish regiments were unfairly discriminated against when they came home and also in subsequent history. Those that did come home, of course. Many did not.

And that narrative is fine. It’s a perfectly legitimate point of view. Former Taoiseach John Bruton made a related argument in a hugely under-reported speech at an event in the Irish Embassy in London last month to mark the hundredth anniversary of the passing of the 1914 Home Rule Act.

Bruton made the point that the Easter Rising had legitimised violence in Irish politics, and the nation would have been better off if the Rising never happened, had stuck with John Redmond and had Home Rule delivered after the war in 1919.

There are a lot of people who currently think Bruton may have had a point. There are those who were never happy about independence. There are those who were badly treated by the independent Ireland are very understandably bitter of over it.

And there are other people who are beginning to look back on the ninety years of Irish independence, and don’t see that much to show for it. We had the boom and the crash and now, worst of all, it looks like we’ve learned nothing, zero, the null set, from it all.

The Dublin property market is overheating again, the Banking Inquiry is looking like a sequel to the Mrs Brown movie and the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have to find a way to mix oil, water, fire and ice to pass a budget in October. So asking if it was all worthwhile is a legitimate question.

But Irish public life is ill-suited to legitimate questions. Politicians and public figures call for calm and reasoned debates on abortion or the nature of marriage or Ireland’s role in World War I but they certainly don’t get them.

We don’t do town hall debates. We don’t do going on the record. We don’t follow Martin Luther and say “here I stand; I can do no other.” What we do instead are shouting matches that properly belong outside chip shops at two in the morning.

And while men are threatening to remove their jackets and engage in boxing, the actual business of public life and government is going on just the same, in much more sedate, though hardly more civilised, surroundings. Nods are nodded and winks are winked until eventually, through highways and byways, deals get cut and things get done while the politicians are still roaring to be held back, before they do damage.

It would be something if people took their stand and said yes, it was a great thing that Ireland played a role in the Great War. Or if they took an opposite view, a view that was quite common until the hundredth anniversary of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination loomed into view, and people saw a chance to rewrite some history books.

Because the opposite and long-standing view of the Great War is that, of all the many wars fought for no reason, World War One was the most pointless. It was a war fought by political entities that were wiped out by it – the House of Hapsburg in Austria-Hungary, the House of Hohenzollern in Germany, the House of Romanov in Russia and the Ottoman Empire that was based in Turkey.

The only House that survived was that of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who were clever enough to change their name to the rather more British-sounding Windsor on the 17th of July, 1917. We look forward to the commemoration of that anniversary in three years’ time.

The rulers of the three “Great Powers” – Germany, Britain and Russia – were all first cousins. Pictured side-by-side, it’s nearly impossible to tell George V of England from Nicholas II of Russia. The three Emperors used to give each other commissions in each other’s army, because all three of them loved dressing up and playing soldiers.

But small ripples can transform into great waves, destroying all before them. These three Emperor-cousins’ love of playing soldiers lead to real soldiers being mobilized one hundred years ago this week, real soldiers who were slaughtered in their thousands and thousands for the next four years.

John Bowman’s TV debate will probably focus on the Irish in the British Army, but that’s too narrow a scope to tell this story. It would be nice if the full story of how the First World War started were told as part of the debate – not least as events in the same corner of the world seem to be getting edgy once again, one hundred years after the start of the war to end wars.