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From Salonika to Soloheadbeg

John Borgonovo

In A Time of War: Tipperary 1914-1918, by John Dennehy, Merrion, 288 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1908928214

Sometimes it seems that public engagement with the First World War has been reduced to angry newspaper letters exchanged every autumn over the wearing of the poppy. One can disagree over the proper method of remembering the Great War yet still recognise its impact on Irish history. The European conflagration fundamentally changed Ireland, creating the conditions that made possible the revolutionary events of 1916 to 1923.

There seemed to be little interest in the war in Ireland until relatively recently. Starting in the 1990s, a number of books examined Irish battlefield service, works by historians like Myles Dungan and Thomas Johnstone. More recently, a number of county-wide tabulations of war dead have inspired significant local interest, with Gerry White and Brendan O’Shea’s A Great Sacrifice: Cork Servicemen Who Died in the Great War (Evening Echo Press, 2010) offering the best example of what might be called First World War heritage scholarship. Despite the pioneering work of historians like Keith Jeffery, David Fitzpatrick, Timothy Bowman and Thomas Hennessey, academic treatment of Ireland’s wartime experience has generally followed, rather than led, public interest. Until recently Irish universities focused more on the War of Independence, with little direct overlap between the two conflicts. Each event retained its own separate scholarship, affiliated to but independent of one another, like diners privately conversing at separate tables in the same restaurant.

More recent work has explored the Irish home front by deploying the local study model, used to great effect by War of Independence historians. These include Colin Cousins’s fine book Armagh and the Great War (The History Press, 2011); Padraig Yeates’s well-received, A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 (Gill and Macmillan, 2012); and my own, The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916-1918 (Cork University Press, 2013). John Dennehy has continued the trend with his commendable new research monograph, In a Time of War: Tipperary 1914-1918 (Merrion, 2013).

Co Tipperary offers an intriguing area for investigation, as it mixes rural communities with a number of urban centres. Though an IRA hotbed from 1919 to 1921, the county also hosted the garrison towns of Clonmel, Cahir and Tipperary. Well-established connections between the local population and the British army are exploited in the book’s first chapter when Dennehy examines public responses to the declaration of war. He draws a neat comparison between the outbreaks of the First World War, the Anglo-Boer War and Crimean War, with each conflict producing visible public support for soldiers departing for the front. To Dennehy, this response was less political than a communal expression of solidarity by soldiers’ family, friends, and neighbours, which echoes some of Catriona Pennell’s findings in Britain and Ireland.

Dennehy’s most compelling material concerns recruiting for the British army, a subject which comprises four of the book’s nine chapters. In a Time of War provides one of the most detailed local examinations of Irish recruiting yet produced. The author presents his findings in extensive detail, making good use of local sources. He paints a mosaic of shifting social strata, diverse nationalist politicians, and friction between the Irish establishment and emerging alternative voices. Communal tensions frayed as the war dragged on, ultimately resulting in a dramatic change in the public’s political allegiances.

Young Tipperary men donned the khaki for a variety of reasons. Some sought the adventure and excitement promised by war propaganda and displays of military pageantry. Constant celebrations of bloodshed and violence also appealed to imperial, racial and local pride. Economic incentives drew many from the economic margins, especially after the introduction of separation allowances for soldiers’ wives. Members of military families frequently enlisted, which especially affected Tipperary’s garrison communities. Ideological motivations seemed to have been dominated by a desire to defend neutral Belgium from real and imagined German atrocities ‑ what cynics might describe as humanitarian intervention via mass industrial warfare. Less apparent was the desire to use military service to secure or validate Irish Home Rule, a political cause contemporary observers tend to subscribe to most Irish war participants outside of Ulster.

Enlistments dried up within a year of the war’s outbreak, as casualties mounted amid a battlefield stalemate. Dennehy presents numerous distressing letters from local men describing the horrors of the front, which were published in Irish newspapers until state censorship eliminated such demoralising unofficial perspectives. The author also produces evidence of public disquiet over Irish participation in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, a trauma for the Irish public largely ignored by historians. In Tipperary buoyant descriptions of battlefield glory were further undermined by thousands of wounded soldiers recuperating in the area, providing a stark visible reminder of the reality of trench warfare.

Dennehy is particularly good at explaining the workings of different recruiting committees that operated in Tipperary with varying degrees of efficiency. Reflecting patriarchal assumptions about Irish society, recruiting organisers sometimes placed unpopular local landlords or employers on platforms. From an early stage, recruiters also threatened conscription to communities that did not deliver enough recruits, a coercive message that seemed to arouse more anger than acquiescence. An undercurrent of audience hostility can be detected even in the war’s early days, especially when recruiters insulted young men who refused to rally to the colours. Communal disapproval of such coercion became louder as the cost of the war grew clearer.

Dennehy’s content analysis of propaganda speeches is fascinating. Beyond references to Belgian atrocity propaganda, speakers often made racialised appeals to Ireland’s presumed martial tendencies. Indeed, some went as far as to celebrate “wild geese” military regiments that in previous centuries fought against Britain. Farmers’ sons unwilling to enlist were frequently on the receiving end of scorn, exacerbating rural-urban social tensions. Reluctant shop assistants had their masculinity questioned, their occupation feminised. Peter Hart’s research has shown that this same shop assistant demographic became the backbone of the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence. Such possible links underline the need for historians of the independence movement to seriously engage with First World War rhetoric, especially the militaristic messages that featured so heavily in Irish public life at this time. During this Decade of Commemorations one cannot forget that Ireland’s “1916 generation” were also members of Europe’s “1914 generation”.

Beyond his recruiting chapters, Dennehy also outlines the collapse of John Redmond’s National Volunteer organisation in Tipperary, which, like other units during the Easter Rising, offered its services to the British army. The economic destabilisation of 1917 and 1918 receives its own chapter, highlighting disruptive price inflation and food shortages. The book concludes with an examination of the conscription crisis, which unfolded in Tipperary as it did elsewhere in Munster. The independence movement mobilised intense opposition to mandatory military service, and then exploited those sentiments to transform Irish nationalism in 1918.

Overall, I noted several similar wartime developments in Tipperary and my speciality area of Cork city. Both locations shared anxiety over food shortages, moral concerns about “Separation Women”, and similar spikes and troughs of military enlistments. There were key differences as well, such as the participation of Irish party officials and Catholic clergy in Tipperary recruiting (they were mainly absent in Cork); the lack of anti-government street rioting in Tipperary compared with Cork; and the bipartisan nature of Tipperary’s voluntary war work. The comparative value of such studies should be plain, and will hopefully encourage new scholars to tackle additional sectors of the Irish home front.

Some of the book’s weaknesses deserve mention. Dennehy sometimes overquotes and underanalyses source material. A better explanation of local politicians and public bodies would have helped readers critically read various wartime debates. Clearer structure in the recruiting chapters might have prevented some confusing repetition. Additional secondary reading would have better contextualised certain local events. More seriously, the war’s impact on trade unionism is essentially ignored here, though Tipperary subsequently experienced a number of red-flagged militant workers’ “Soviets” in 1921-1922. The author’s treatment of “Separation Women” is also problematic, as he accepts at face value reports of their abuse of alcohol. Such concerns may have resulted from a moral panic about working class women with absent husbands, a development seen in Britain as well as urban Ireland.

However, such criticisms should not take away from an important piece of original historical scholarship that has broadened our understanding of events in Tipperary, not just in 1914 to 1918, but in 1919 to 1923 as well. A journalist by profession, John Dennehy has produced a thoughtful and accessible narrative. He has shown that despite the distance, the road from Salonika to Soloheadbeg may not have been such a long way after all.

16/12/2013

Dr John Borgonovo lectures in the School of History at University College Cork.  His research monograph, The Dynamics of War and Revolution, Cork City 1916-1918 was published by Cork University Press in June 2013.

 

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