British troops marching up Henry Street, Mountmellick, early 1900s. Image from Mountmellick Pictorial Memories by Arnold Crawford and Michael Scott, Laois Local Studies
by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence
It is often claimed that the men who returned from the Great War were forgotten after they returned to an Ireland which had changed. This is in fact simply not true of the immediate decades after the war, however true it might be for much later decades at the close of the twentieth century. Moreover, the militarism of the 1914-1918 war has greatly shaped how we have remembered the Irish Revolution.
It is undoubted that the rush to war in August 1914 was popular in Ireland. This is often connected to the promise of Home Rule. Home Rule was certainly a factor, but the news media made particular reference to the European situation. In other words, to the apparent oppressive bellicosity of Imperial Germany. So the Nationalist editorialised on the peril of “Teutonic aggression” and went on “when the persecutors of the Poles and the Alsatians are ranged against us . . .Ireland should be as one man with England in helping the other European States to resist the arrogant aggressions of the hated Teutons.” The admonishing continued: “Irishmen should remember that the fate of smaller nations, heretofore more downtrodden than Ireland, is at stake.”
There were emotional scenes as the 4th Battalion Leinster Regiment mobilised in Maryborough. A guard of honour was provided by the pro-Home Rule militia the Volunteers. The battalion was brought to the train station behind the Ancient Order of Hibernians Pipe Band. There were cries for “Redmond” and “Home Rule” from the watching crowd. Colonel Sir Anthony Weldon addressed the assembled throng on behalf of the officers and non-commissioned officers of the battalion. He praised the Volunteers, who, at this stage, it was conceived would be a home defence militia for Ireland. Something like the Home Guard would come to mind for us, but of course in 1914 the Second World War was not their point of reference, and the Volunteers of the 1780s was the memory being appealed to. Sir Anthony’s wife, the Lady Weldon, was later to play a noted public role in providing support for prisoners of war and attempted to do likewise, with varying success, for returning veterans. It is likely that the newspaper reports over emphasised the nationalist nature of this episode. Most people were probably there to see their friends and family members off, or just to experience a big colourful dramatic newsworthy event. Nonetheless it was to the air of A Nation Once Again that this British Army unit entrained.
Division and Discontent —even before Easter 1916
We can get an impression of unity and passionate support for the imperial war effort from 1914 and we can contrast that with 1918, the anti-conscription movement and the Sinn Féin victory in the khaki election. However, it is not hard to find evidence of a deeply divided society in 1914 and indeed some evidence of growing discontent at the war even before the separatist insurrection of Easter 1916. Earlier in August 1914 a call to arms had been heard in a setting as seemingly incongruous as the Mountmellick Board of Guardians (a minor local government body). Chairman John O’Connell J.P. said “the time for speechmaking was past . . . and the time for action had come. What they wanted at the present time were rifles.” This was regarding a resolution about what they called Dublin’s Bloody Sunday — the Bachelor’s Walk massacre — where the King’s Own Scottish Borderers shot dead four Dubliners and injured thirty more. Perhaps this was in fact just speech making, but it gives us some indication of the sentiments that were out there.
A recruiting event in Maryborough January 1916 offers us some insight. Clergymen and Members of Parliament appealed for fresh recruits — the great and the good of Irish society were still four square behind the Empire’s war. However, murmurs of discontent could be heard in the background — in the form of both heckling at the recruiting meeting and a straightforward lack of recruits. Moreover, even in the genuinely popular 1914-1918 war recruiting seems to have been very much classed, in the that it was men with minimal economic opportunity who more likely ended up in the ranks.
Recruiting, Class and Gender
It is worth extracting parts of the reported speeches to the Maryborough recruiting rally of January 1916. There was an address by Private Michael J. McLoughlin, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and member of Athy No. 2 Rural District Council (which administered the Laois hinterland of the town):
“Private McLoughlin said that he was told that Maryborough had done very well, and had sent a lot of men to the colours. But who were they? He asked. They were the workingmen of the district. How many farmers’ sons had gone from Maryborough and the district to join the colours? How many shopkeepers had joined the army from Maryborough? None, with the exception of Joe Meehan, his old pal on many a Gaelic field (hear, hear). He was proud to be on the same platform with Joe Meehan.”
This was in reference to Corporal Joseph L. Meehan, Irish Guards, brother of P.J. Meehan, Member of Parliament, and son of P.A. Meehan, a long-running M.P. closely involved in agrarian struggles and the Home Rule campaign. Joe Meehan was also a speaker at the recruiting rally, and was later chair of Portlaoise Town Commission in which capacity he was interned as a political prisoner in Ballykinlar camp. Bravely Joe Meehan refused the prospect of the special treatment of individual release through the political machinations of his well-connected family.
McLoughlin’s speech to the recruitment meeting continued:
“He knew the workingmen were heart and soul with them, but there were Sinn Feiners in Maryborough. He knew Sinn Feiners in Maryborough years before the war, who were Sinn Feiners on principle, but there were a lot of young men running to be Sinn Feiners now to escape going into the army (applause).”
The next speaker continued on this gendered theme, with a vision of martial masculinity. W. E. Roe said: “young men had now got the chance of their lives to prove themselves men, and if they did not hurry up they would lose that chance, because the war would have ended without them. They would go down to posterity that the men who were strong and able did not fight, but stayed at home.”
There was a class dimension to British Army recruitment, albeit to a lesser extent in these years of the Great War than in the normal conditions of what passed for peacetime. There was also this gendered dimension, to “prove themselves men”, to fulfil a set of norms and expectations of behaviour associated with a gender role. That subtext is present in McLoughlin’s speech too — that there were new Sinn Féiners, not out of principle, a manly virtue perhaps, but, though he is not quite so explicit, they were Sinn Féiners out of cowardice.
For now what is important in all this is not the differences between the Home Rulers and the Republicans but rather what they had in common — a similar nationalism, but also often unspoken expectations around violence and masculinity that were shared across the society. On the one hand there were certainly status concerns about taking up the hitherto lowly occupation of soldiering. McLoughlin concluded with an appeal: “to the farmers’ sons and shop assistants to join the Irish regiments, and said that they would be sent to serve in battalions with men of their own class.” On the other hand clearly it seems real men were soldiers not like the apparently cowardly Sinn Féiners. As an aside it is important to consider the possibility that apparent disdain in Irish society for ex-soldiers may have related as much to the social snobbery typified by the notion of separate battalions for occupational groups as it may have related to hostility to the British state.
The Glamour of Arms
This martial masculinity should be put in a central place in understanding representations of the Irish Revolution. If the nation was seemingly embodied in the soldierly valour of its manhood, that nation was in risk of being epitomised by the Irish Regiments in Flanders or Gallipoli. Of course this undermined the Republican case for complete separation from the United Kingdom. Hence the need to occupy a space of the imagination where resided the nation, the nation-in-arms of her gallant sons fulfilling the expectations of gendered behaviour. This wasn’t necessarily at all a conscious process, but a competition to appear as proper men with a proper country is apparent. Consider the incongruously martial mood of this report of the April 1918 anti-conscription demonstration in Athy:
“To a person standing on the brow of the Barrow bridge the spectacle was an exhilarating one. The afternoon was one borrowed from summer and the air was melodious with roll of drum and plaint . . .of fife. Away down the street were the serried ranks of men, and in the background, though overshadowing the entire spectacle, was the tangible thought that Ireland had at long length arrived at the realisation of its power. It is questionable if the English Prime Minister has ever heard of Athy, but had he been an eye-witness of Tuesday’s demonstration of latent power he might well have re-echoed the exclamation of his more exalted namesake, whose angry remark on being informed of the prowess of the Irish at Fontenoy was: “Cursed be the laws which deprive me of such subjects.””
The battle of Fontenoy, where men went to France to fight, is here evoked in a description of men who were actually trying to avoid being sent to France to fight! The reference to “his more exalted namesake” is that George II was king in 1745 when Irish units in the French service were central to the defeat of the British Army at Fontenoy, while Lloyd George was the Prime Minister in 1918. This was not a singular peculiarity in a particular pressman’s reporting of one event. It represents rather a broader trend. The anti-conscription meeting in Mountmellick heard that Ireland has sons ready to die in her cause. An interesting transition in Republican activism took place in East Galway in the run up to the First World War: a move away from the old Irish Republican Brotherhood/agrarian secret society conspiratorial model towards the open drilling of the Volunteers. This really only makes sense in terms of the tenor of the times and the new glamorous appeal of the military image as European states armed against each other.
There is another pertinent observation to be taken from the report of the Athy anti-conscription demonstration we are told the parade was “originally designed to typify the power of labour”, occurring as it did as part of the one-day general strike against conscription. Once that “power of labour” was put back inside the box with the formation of the Free State then that was something excised from social memory. It was not politically useful to the rulers of the new state.
However, the martial image was still central. This is part of the reason for a preponderance of attention on some events, and a lack of attention on others. Now the Easter Rising was doubtless an important episode, and as it mostly happened in the capital city it will inescapably bestride the print of the history books. The volume of writing on it, in comparison to the lack of attention to the nationwide anti-conscription mobilisation, bears no resemblance to the relative importance of the events in the time in which they happened. Rather it speaks to how later generations wanted to remember – or better how people with the resources and power to dominate public memory wanted to remember.
Perhaps particularly peculiarly this meant there has been little or no place in how the revolution has been remembered for much of what the Irish Republican Army actually did. Or at least some aspects have been downgraded in favour of others, and the downgraded aspects are nearly always at odds with what people imagine it is that an ‘Army’ should be. So while the Bloody Sunday assassinations are remembered, the extent to which killings like these comprised such a large proportion of the I.R.A.’s lethal violence is a surprise; likewise, the extent of violent intimidation, in support of, for instance, the boycott of the R.I.C., much more like the pattern of nineteenth-century agrarian violence than what is conjured to mind by the term ‘Army’; similarly, the I.R.A.’s arguably most successful tactic, road sabotage, just doesn’t fit. Of course pre-eminently what didn’t fit was Cumann na mBan, now thankfully getting more attention.
Remembering the War
Reading the reports of Armistice Day 1928, marking the tenth anniversary of the end of the First World War, it is hard to credit any notion that the war was forgotten. Indeed, reading some of the reports it is hard to credit that a revolution had happened. That really comes to the nub —while the tone of 1914 was broadly speaking nationalist, later commemoration of the 1914-1918 war was couched in imperial loyalties. The Leinster Express began its local round-up of remembrance events in November 1928 with a cosmopolitan vision:
“In every city, town and remote hamlet in the British Isles, and in far distant places in the Empire where Britons dwell, homage was paid on Sunday to those who laid down their lives in the Great War. . . . . The ceremony at the Cenotaph, where the King led his people in the tribute to those who had fallen, was broadcast for the first time.”
The paper went on to detail Remembrance Sunday, as it is now known, in Maryborough, Abbeyleix, Mountmellick, Mountrath, Portarlington, Coolbanagher and Rathdowney, as well as in the adjacent counties. Typically, these commemorations involved religious services, both Catholic and Anglican, with the addition of Methodists in Portarlington, wreath laying, and the parading of veteran soldiers led by veteran officers. Chiming with the Leinster Express invocation of “far distant places in the Empire” proceedings in Abbeyleix were led by Colonel Langdon, formerly of the Gurkha Rifles.
The first marking of the Great War was much more contentious. That event was the so-called Peace Day or Victory Day of July 1919. Contentious in part because the contemporary swell of discontent included military veterans rather than excluding them. That is to say there was disgruntlement coming from 1914-1918 veterans with how the 1914-1918 war was being commemorated. Or perhaps a better way of looking at it is that veterans were using the commemorations as opportunities for social conflict in disgruntlement at how they were treated. This occurred in a multitude of ways, some less overtly political than others. According to the Irish Independent: “In Mountmellick the ex-soldiers declined to parade, and a bonfire in O’Connell square was extinguished by Sinn Feiners.” Lest we think this discontent was confined to Ireland, the same Irish Independent report that mentioned Mountmellick listed rioting in English towns such as Coventry, Luton and Swindon, as well as a plan by discontented Mancunian veterans to march on London. The grievances raised in Manchester were unemployment and a low level of welfare payment. In Athy ex-soldiers rioted against Sinn Féin —something which had a class aspect to it as much as being a set to between local “pro-German” and “pro-Britain” factions.
There were several veterans’ organisations in the wake of the war, including the Comrades of the Great War and the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers. The Federation excluded officers from its ranks, was sometimes militant in pursuit of its members’ interests, and was at least adjacent to, if not quite affiliated with, the labour movement. The Comrades of the Great War was a more conservative, deferential and officer-friendly body. These two organisations existed across the United Kingdom and had quite tense relations. A specifically Irish-organisation was the Irish Nationalist Veterans’ Association. Both the Association and the Federation boycotted the official Peace Day celebrations in Dublin in July 1919.
The big day-out for the Comrades of the Great War in the Queen’s County was the fete at Heywood, Ballinakill, on the 3rd of September 1919. There was a great presence of glitterati, including Lord Lieutenant the Viscount French and General Bryan Mahon, one-time commander-in-chief of all forces in Ireland (incidentally French was responsible for Mahon’s sacking). Even here in the epicentre of deference and paternalism the dreaded hand of subversion was felt, albeit in a fairly opportunistic and individualistic manner — after the fete a quantity of silverware and cutlery was missing, presumed to have been liberated. Ex-soldiers in Maryborough later expressed their indignation at their homes being searched in the subsequent police investigation. The word ‘loot’ entered the English language via the activities of British soldiers in India so perhaps this was just the Empire come home.
On a broader canvass it is worthwhile remembering that British soldiers went on strike in January 1919 to assure their demobilisation and return to civilian life. All these ructions and the general spirit of unrest were met with concrete outcomes. Specifically, in this part of the world the Irish Land (Provision for Sailors and Soldiers) Act of 1919. This ultimately provided for 4,000 houses for returned military veterans, houses which were built over the 1920s and 1930s. The most significant such housing development in Laois was ‘Hill 60’ in Mountmellick. Nicknamed for either Hill 60 in Ypres in France or Hill 60 in Gallipoli in Turkey, with the same name as was originally given to Hill 16 in Croke Park (Hill 16 is a later patriotic overlay the G.A.A. authorities decided on). Nationally Hill 60 joined the likes of Bengal Terrace in Limerick (the Bengal tiger was the symbol of the Royal Munster Fusiliers), Legion Terrace in Longford (presumably named for veterans’ association the Royal British Legion), and Haig Gardens in Cork (named for the Legion founder and First World War General). Other names are less stilted and suggestive of a more vernacular naming process such as Shellshock Road in Kilrush, Co. Clare, or indeed Hill 60 itself.
People in the past lived complex, multi-coloured lives, just as we do today. So someone like Joe Meehan could spend sometime in a British uniform and sometime in a British prison camp. Later generations made more of a black and white monochrome memory of the past. They had their reasons too. The Ireland that “forgot” its regiments of the British Army was an Ireland that had recently seen the violence of, in particular, the Parachute Regiment. It was also a country with, relatively speaking, greater prosperity, something which made the proverbial King’s shilling less of a necessity.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 8 August 1914.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 15 August 1914.
 Leinster Express, 8 August 1914.
 Leinster Express, 8 August 1914.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 22 January 1916.
 ‘Laois men in Ballykinlar’, Laois Association Yearbook 1991, p. 19
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 27 March 1918.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 27 March 1918.
 Tony Varley, ‘Tom Kenny and the Agrarian Dimension of the Galway Rising’ in Farming and Country Life 1916 (Carlow, Teagasc, 2016) pp. 23‒28.
 Interesting co-relation in this regard noted in: Thomas Earls Fitzgerald, Combatants and Civilians in Revolutionary Ireland, 1918-1923 (London, Routledge, 2021), p. 120.
 W.H. Kautt, Ambushes and Armour: The Irish Rebellion 1919 – 1921 (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2010), p. 130, p. 160.
 Leinster Express, 17 November 1928.
 Irish Independent, 23 July 1919.
 Terence M. Dunne, ‘Emergence from the embers: the Meath and Kildare farm labour strike of 1919’ Saothar 44 (2019) pp. 59‒68.
 John Borgonovo, ‘Revolution, ex-servicemen and the Cork Branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, 1918‒21’ in David Swift and Oliver Wilkinson (eds) Veterans of the First World War: Ex-Servicemen and Ex-Servicewomen in Post-War Britain and Ireland (London, Routledge, 2019) pp. 82‒103.
 Leinster Express, 6 September 1919.
 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 27 September 1919.
 A few people have helped me with information about Hill 60, in no particular order thanks is due to: Cormac Moore, Frances Kerry, Ger Lynch, Ger O’Mahony, Helen Dunne and Laura Gorman; and also the Reading the Signs blog (https://readingthesigns.weebly.com/).
 While the British Army was obviously playing a repressive role in Ireland in the 1920s it is notable that the memory of that repression is so focused on ‘the Black and Tans’ and less so on the Army or a putatively ‘ordinary’ R.I.C..