More than 200,000 Irishmen fought in the First World War, buoyed by the hope that their support for Britain in its time of need would be rewarded by independence for Ireland once the fighting was over.
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The soldiers were waved off as heroes, fighting for king and country. They expected to return to an Ireland proud of their bravery and sacrifice.
It didn’t work out that way.
Thousands were killed in action, and there was no hero’s welcome for those who returned. For the Ireland they went back to in 1918 was very different to the Ireland they had left four years earlier.
While they were fighting in France and Belgium, Nationalist rebels had staged the Easter Rising in 1916. Although the Rising was quickly put down by the British Army, it changed Ireland forever.
The brutal executions of the rebel leaders like Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, hardened Irish opinion against Britain and in favour of independence. When Irish soldiers returned from the war, they were largely met with indifference, even hostility because they were seen as having fought for the hostile power occupying their country.
Of course, the picture was very different in Ulster where the largely Protestant community remained loyal to Britain and treated their war veterans as heroes.
The cold shoulder that greeted veterans throughout the rest of Ireland meant they rarely spoke about their experiences, as if what they had done was wrong.
Irish officialdom was also indifferent to the men who had fought in the war, preferring to see the rebels of 1916 as the country’s true heroes.
The former Nationalist MP Tom Kettle, who was killed on the Somme, summed up the predicament of the Irish soldiers when he said that the leaders of the 1916 Rising “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”.
Kettle’s assessment proved to be accurate. In 1966, the Irish government organised lavish celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising. There were no such celebrations for the Irish soldiers who fought and died at the Somme in 1916, or in any other battle of the war.
It was as if the contribution of the Irish to the British war effort had been written out of history.
That attitude has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, as time and distance has given a more detached perspective to those events of a hundred years ago.
In 1998 to mark the 80th anniversary of the armistice, of 11 November 1918, Irish president Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II together dedicated a memorial at Messines known as the Island of Ireland Peace Tower to honour the Irish killed in World War 1.
In 2014, Ireland’s Memorial Records were put online. The records were originally published in 1923 and contain the names of more than 49,000 Irishmen and women who were killed or seriously wounded during the war. They’re a wonderful resource for anyone interested in genealogy or who wishes to trace their family tree to Ireland.