A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-18, by Padraig Yeates, Gill and Macmillan, ISBN: 978-071714972 8
Padraig Yeates sets out in this pioneering study to trace the transformations to which Dublin was subject as a result of its – on the whole unwilling – participation in the First World War. These transformations were far-reaching. The most obvious change was to the physical fabric of the city centre, extensive parts of which had to be rebuilt following the British bombardment during Easter Week 1916. Change was evident in relations between employers and employed as, after the great setback of 1913 lockout, the labour movement, under the leadership of William O’Brien, made real gains during the final years of the war. Change also extended to relations between the sexes, as a result of women’s participation in wartime manufacture and the absence of a significant number of working class men in the British army. Finally change was to be seen at political level as influence, and then power, within the city shifted from John Redmond’s Parliamentary Party to Sinn Féin. This rebalancing within the nationalist community was accompanied by a slow and reluctant coming to terms on the part of unionist, and largely Protestant, Dublin with a changed political landscape.
In Padraig Yeates’s account, Dublin was unique within the United Kingdom in the grip that poverty had on large sections of its population and in the multiple problems associated with extensive, fetid tenement housing. The health problems with which the poor were faced were, he suggests, difficult to parallel in Europe and more akin to those found in Asian cities. The city’s leadership, as represented by Dublin Corporation, comes across as lacking in the resources and energy to tackle these problems. This may have been because councillors, nationalists and unionists alike, had invested in tenement property, or saw their priority as protecting the interests of the ratepayers, or of the drinks trade. One of the indicators, Yeates suggests, of the tiredness of parliamentary nationalism was the incapacity of the former rural radicals, who provided its leadership, to come to terms with urban problems.
A City in Wartime is a richly textured work, which combines social, municipal and labour history, while never losing sight of the broader Irish and British backgrounds. It incorporates a series of miniature essays, sometimes no longer than a paragraph, on topics as diverse as the city’s food supply, the changing role of the Dublin Metropolitan Police as morale eroded under advanced nationalist pressure, public attitudes to the existence of an extensive area of the city given over to prostitution, and responses to the outbreak of Spanish Flu at the end of the war.
These perspectives on life in wartime Dublin are accompanied by brief sketches of some of the more significant actors. In a notably iconoclastic portrait, James Connolly is presented as unbending and divisive compared to his successor, William O’Brien. Thomas Ashe, who died from forced feeding in 1917, emerges as a lost leader and potential rival to De Valera and Collins, who combined the abilities of both men without their well known faults. The death on the Western Front in August 1917 of the Dublin priest Father Willy Doyle is seen as the last flickering of the Redmondite dream, as he is recalled as worshipped by Ulster Protestant soldiers for his courage and kindliness. In a brief vignette, the attitude of Constance Markiewicz, who allowed herself to be deceived regarding the Bolshevik seizure of power, is contrasted with that of Dr Kathleen Lynn, who was “acutely aware of the public mood among the middle classes”. Archbishop William Walsh weaves in and out of Padraig Yeates’s narrative. He emerges as a man of considerable resources, who combined political insight with diplomatic adroitness, and whose death on the eve of the civil war Ireland could ill afford. He presents a striking contrast with the rigid martinet who, nineteen years after his death, became his only rival as a major twentieth century Dublin archbishop.
Although Yeates’s book finds a place for many small things, he has one big story to tell. In his account, unlike Belfast and the major British manufacturing cites Dublin did not gain from the war and, apart from obvious beneficiaries such as “separation women” (wives of serving men, in receipt of army payments) and a minority who defined their identity in terms of loyalty to the empire, it was not popular among its inhabitants. After the initial surge of middle class recruitment prompted by John Redmond’s pro-war speeches of 1914, as The Irish Times had regular occasion to lament, recruitment fell off dramatically apart from among the poor, for whom it had little political significance.
In recent years Redmond’s wartime strategy has been presented as a rational and honourable alternative, whereby Ireland might have gained its independence without recourse to arms. There is much in Padraig Yeates’s book to suggest that this view is illusory. By autumn 1915 that strategy was already under pressure, as the contempt of the British officer class for the aspirations of the Irish soldiers who served under them became known and Dublin’s horrified citizens learned of the catastrophic death toll at Gallipoli. This was followed by the immense slaughter in the battles of 1916 on the Western Front, where the numbers killed far outweighed casualties from the Dublin Rising in Easter of that year. The story thereafter of how Redmond’s party was outmanoeuvred at Westminster by its unionist opponents and undermined at home by the war it had so enthusiastically supported, is a familiar one. A City in Wartime tells that story to great effect by doing so at local level. One detail encapsulates much. Redmond’s deputy, John Dillon, passed Easter week 1916 in his house in North Great George’s Street. When approached during the week by some of his political supporters, who were anxious to receive their leader’s advice, this figure, who had been one of Parnell’s most resolute and daring lieutenants, had nothing to say.
The claim that there has been a “collective amnesia” regarding participation in the war is briskly dismissed by Padraig Yeates as a product of Ireland’s post-1969 circumstances. As he shows, the war was remembered for decades afterwards, but in terms appropriate to Dublin’s experience of that event. This conclusion accords with common experience. Growing up in Dublin in the 1950s, I recall the First World War as being remembered, but not celebrated. If I had to say how it was regarded, I would have to fall back on the moralistic language of that decade and say it was viewed with a certain melancholy, as an example of human folly and wickedness. John Redmond was seen as a man who had meant well, but had made a catastrophic misjudgment in committing his country to support a conflict that was none of its business. Where the essentials are concerned, I cannot see that the views of my elders were mistaken.
Brian Earls is a former diplomat. His published work focuses on the relationship between oral tradition and printed literature, principally in the nineteenth century.