The tide of the Great War at home and abroad

In this large album, Galway historian Cormac Ó Comhraí attempts to mingle the story of Ireland’s involvement with the Great War in the wider world and the course of events, often moving in other directions, back in Ireland itself. His research has been assiduous, and he has collected many unusual, unknown or forgotten images of men, women and places from those years of appalling suffering and great change.

The book is arranged in four parts after a brief introduction. He covers Ireland before the Great War, the outbreak of the war, the experiences involved in soldiers’ lives at the front and at home and the varied impact that the war had on unionists and nationalists, before turning to the last years of the war and its aftermath.

The story comes across in the images, for there is no narrative, but rather long captions discussing each image in its context. In this way some of the experience of the time is given to the reader.


But there are disadvantages too. The terrible experiences that were the soldiers’ daily round, not only on the Western Front, but also in Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, do not really come across in all their horrors. He does, however, draw attention to often overlooked facts, such as the Irish soldiers fighting in Salonika against the Bulgarians, who were allies of the Germans.

It should not be forgotten that, whatever course the war took, it should not have happened. The real culprit for plunging Europe to disaster was not the Kaiser, but the Austrian Empero, his Catholic Majesty ageing autocrat Franz Joseph. It was his desire to punish Serbia that began the war, the inter-connecting treaties of Russia, France and Britain then making a continental war inevitable.

Cormac Ó Comhraí writes as an Irish nationalist with republican sympathies anxious to do justice so far as is possible to the various groups in Ireland. 

The revolution was no tidy matter of Ireland against the Empire, but largely of different groups of Irish people, left and right, unionist and nationalist, conservative and liberal and socialist. It could be argued that the war at home from its very beginning was in essence a civil war, a struggle for power, and not a war of national liberation.

It seems to me that he underplays the wave of sympathy that swept Ireland for the Belgian people suffering at the hands of the Germans. Ideas about the German cruelties have waxed and waned over the years.

At present historians agree again that the atrocities were not merely the invention of propaganda; though oddly this was not the view of the one and only edition of Irish War News in Easter week. (By the way, his publishers, originally a religious press, take their name from Cardinal Mercier, the patriotic Belgian archbishop.)

He concludes his book with an observation from Richard Deasy that “rather than being a commentary on the political rights and wrong of what was a catastrophic conflict,” these commemorations should recognise those who served and died.

“This is a fine sentiment,” he adds. “The challenge for historians will be to go beyond the names and stereotypes of both supporters and detractors, and find the individuals, whether their motivation was financial, political, selfish or noble. The results of this investigation will be mixed. Some of their thoughts and beliefs may be offensive to 21st Century readers. Some of their deeds will cause us to question our own bravery and integrity.

“But above all else a forensic investigation of the war years will breathe life once more into those who lie in rest both at home and abroad.”


New Great War exhibition at Glasnevin

Earlier this year, Glasnevin Cemetery museum appealed to members of the public to come forward with artefacts and heirlooms relating to Ireland’s involvement in the First World War. The response was overwhelming and the range of objects and stories brought out into public for the first time gave a unique insight into the history of Ireland during that period and is now on display in the World War I Centenary Exhibition in the cemetery museum.

For more details, call the museum 01-882 6550, or email (museum, Glasnevin Cemetery, Finglas Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 1; open Monday – Friday 10am-5pm; Saturday, Sunday & bank holidays, 11am-5pm; entrance €6 or €4 concession).