Irish Identities and the Great War in Drama and Fiction

by Martin Decker (Author)
©2016 Thesis 293 Pages


The era of the First World War represents one of the most turbulent and divisive periods in twentieth-century Irish history. The war is closely connected to the violent path to Irish independence from Britain and, for more than a century, it has brought the complexity of the issue of Irish identity into sharp focus. This study shows how the disparate literary responses of Irish authors to the war and its problematic legacy offer intriguing insights into different concepts of Irish identity, specifically those long buried within Irish national and historical consciousness. The late re-discovery of these identities in Irish writing reveals a modern nation trying to come to terms with its polarised past, seeking a more integrative sense of national self for the twenty-first century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Contexts
  • II.1 Theoretical Context
  • II.1.1 ‘Cultural Identity’, the Nation, Nationalism
  • II.1.2 History, Memory, Revisionism
  • II.1.3 War, the Body, Gender, Disability
  • II.2 Historical Context
  • II.3 Literary Context
  • II.3.1 Writing and Re-Writing the Great War
  • II.3.2 Writing Ireland’s Great War
  • III. Readings
  • III.1 Socialist Perspectives – Shaw and O’Casey
  • III.1.1 George Bernard Shaw’s O’Flaherty V. C. (1915)
  • III.1.2 Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie (1928)
  • III.2 Anglo-Irish Perspectives
  • III.2.1 Context: The Anglo-Irish, the Big House and the Great War
  • III.2.2 Lennox Robinson’s The Big House (1926)
  • III.2.3 Sean Dowling’s The Bird in the Net (1960)
  • III.2.4 Pamela Hinkson’s The Ladies’ Road (1932)
  • III.2.5 Margaret Barrington’s My Cousin Justin (1939)
  • III.2.6 Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974)
  • III.3 Revisionist Perspectives – Re-Envisioning Ireland’s Great War
  • III.3.1 Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985)
  • III.3.2 Christina Reid’s My Name, Shall I Tell You My Name? (1987)
  • III.3.3 Nicola McCartney’s Heritage (1998)
  • III.3.4 Tom Phelan’s The Canal Bridge (2005)
  • III.3.5 Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (2005)
  • III.3.6 Dermot Bolger’s Walking the Road (2007)
  • IV. Conclusion
  • List of Works Cited

← 8 | 9 →

I.  Introduction

The 2014 centenary of the outbreak of the Great War was accompanied by a substantial programme of commemoration in and on behalf of Ireland. This included not only the participation of President Michael D. Higgins in commemorative events in Liège and Mons, alongside representatives of more than seventy nations, but also acts such as the unveiling of the “Cross of Sacrifice” in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, a new monument for the Irishmen who died in the First and the Second World War. This ceremony stood out as a joint Irish and British effort, “infused with military pomp and solemnity” (Murtagh 2014). It featured Irish and British troops as well as appearances and speeches by President Higgins, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the mayors of Dublin and Belfast, ambassadors from several countries, and even British royalty in the person of Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent. Furthermore, on the occasion of the war’s anniversary, several new exhibitions about the Irish Great War experience have been organised, for example by the National Library in Dublin and by the National Museum of Ireland. The topic of the Great War has been extensively covered in Irish media, in newspapers, magazines, internet forums, television programmes and political talk shows, frequently in connection with the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016. The war has also returned to Irish stages, for example, the Abbey Theatre has announced a new production and international tour of Frank McGuinness’s seminal play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme in 2016. Altogether, these efforts suggest that the First World War is fully integrated and accepted as an important event in modern Irish historical and national consciousness.

Importantly, the spirit that has underpinned these acts of public commemoration and historical education in Ireland since the last decade or so is a fairly new one – it is characterised by sympathy and respect for the fallen and by a conscious and explicitly integrative engagement with a chapter of Irish history that had actually been an unwelcome one for decades. In fact, for much of the twentieth century, there had been something like a public amnesia in Ireland concerning the Great War (cf. Ferriter 2005, 132) – a large-scale historical and political marginalisation of the topic and of those Irishmen and Irishwomen involved in it. In a country long dominated by parochial nationalism, by the idolisation of its revolutionary origins and by a widespread desire to cut all ties to the former coloniser Britain, the service of more than 200,000 Irishmen in the British forces ← 9 | 10 → during the Great War had been seen majorly as an irrelevant, embarrassing or, at worst, treasonable episode. Silence quickly fell on the subject after the 1920s.

It was only by the 1980s, as old dichotomies began to crumble and as Ireland became more modern, open and heterogeneous, that the views on the Great War began to change. Against the narrow-mindedness and insularity of the past there developed a growing appropriation of a more inclusive sense of Irish national history and identity in official discourses in the twenty-first century, extending to the issue of the Great War. This finds expression, for example, in the words of President Higgins in the aftermath of the 2014 Glasnevin ceremony:

I think we should use the opportunity of World War One to recognise the catastrophe that war is as well as how easy it is to become trapped in a bubble of warlike thinking. […]. [T]here is also a huge obligation on those heads of state and representatives of society to critique their own inherited assumptions of empire and imperial tendency and imperial consequences. […] [M]y definition of a republic is a republic that includes all of the experiences and all of the vulnerabilities of all of its citizens and these are Irish.

(quoted in Collins 2014)

However, this does not mean that in contemporary Ireland the topic of the Great War has completely lost its potential for controversy. There is still an element of uneasiness about the Irish involvement in the war, which surfaced particularly in the context of the heightened attention to the topic on the occasion of the centenary. For example, the aforementioned ceremony in Glasnevin cemetery was accompanied by the heckling and verbal abuse by a group of radical republicans who disrupted the event by shouting “shame, shame, shame”, “Brits out” and “Higgins you traitor” (quoted in Murtagh 2014). The 2014 issuing of commemorative stamps by An Post, showing Irish recruitment posters of the Great War, encountered opposition, for example, by Labour TD Eamon Maloney, who objected to the stamps’ depiction of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and influential campaigner for volunteering, who, according to Maloney, “shamed Irishmen into killing for Great Britain” (quoted in Calnan 2014). Finally, to include an example from a popular mass media context, the reactions of readers to an opinion piece by the historian John Bowman in The Irish Times in August 2014 vividly illustrate the still contested status of the Great War in Ireland. In his article, Bowman points out the history of the Irish forgetfulness about “our largest casualty list, those Irish who lost their lives abroad during the Great War” (Bowman 2014), and he calls for new efforts of remembrance. The heated debate of readers on the newspaper’s website offers an intriguing panorama of attitudes to the topic – even if the representativeness of such forums of course is questionable. The ← 10 | 11 → readers’ comments, more than 400 in total, range from approval and understanding to scepticism and outright contempt for the Irish soldiers of the Great War (cf. Bowman 2014).1 For example, a reader named “Simon Lachlan” agrees with Bowman, even favourably contrasting the Irish soldiers of the war with the venerated rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising: “In their own misguided way, they fought for freedom, not clerical dictatorships by the back door”. Conversely, “Joe Nolan” wants to remind Bowman that it was not the Irish soldiers but the revolutionaries and republican fighters of the 1910s and 1920s who “paved the way for independence and the freedom to prevent our involvement in such wars”. Another reader, “BikeSafeBeSeen”, is largely uninterested in the political implications of the topic and calls for a more humane approach, adding a personal note: “I only care to remember my mother’s two Irish uncles and her father, how scarred for life he was after ‘surviving’ the war and how this impacted greatly on her life and ultimately my life”. “T Beckett” argues that Irish volunteers were “betrayed, humiliated and conned” to serve in a war that was nothing but “mindless slaughter for no real values”. He or she is also uncomfortable with the involvement of Britain in Irish war commemorations: “I’d prefer […] not to have our tragic war dead leased out to the British associations”. Similarly, “Mike Hughes” is tired of “too many Union Jacks around all this stuff”, suggesting that the British influence “should be greatly limited” or even restricted to the separate commemoration of unionist soldiers. A user named “Seán Óg Mac Gearailt” attracts much opposition by wondering polemically why “naive (at best) and money-hungry (at worst) individuals who were, by the standard of the day, well-paid as mercenaries for the biggest empire in world history” should be remembered at all. Finally, most vitriolic, “James Kelly” snaps that “[m]isguided or just traitors, on the plus side [the Great War] rid our country of the pus of unionism”, and he adds sarcastically that “[w]e’ll be celebrating the Black and Tans next”.

Such discordant debates about the Great War and the handling of its legacy reveal much about the contemporary condition of Ireland. Firstly, they vividly illustrate the continuous and powerful grip of ‘history’ in Ireland – the fact that the Irish past and relations to it are constantly re-examined, remaining a vital if contested and fraught source of orientation and identification. As the historian Ian McBride observes, in Ireland “the interpretation of the past has always been at the heart of national conflict” (McBride 2001, 1). McBride also refers to Richard Rose’s view of the country as “almost a land without history; because the troubles ← 11 | 12 → of the past are relived as contemporary events” (McBride 2001, 1f.). Secondly, the debates surrounding the war and its legacy reveal a condition of a continuous insecurity about the national self, inevitably leading up to questions of identity and belonging: Who qualifies as ‘Irish’ and as a relevant part in Ireland’s national narrative, and who is relegated to the margins of this narrative? How can this narrative be pluralised and how can marginalised identities be reconciled within the context of a changing Ireland; should they even be reintegrated? These questions of course are again centrally determined by the respective politicised approaches to the Irish past and by the interplay of different inherited allegiances and identities – the variations of nationalism and unionism, also including the related religious affiliations and, probably less prominently, aspects like socialism, pacifism or internationalism – or, respectively, the possibility of transcending these positions.

The period problematised in the above-mentioned debates, the age of the Great War and the domestic disruptions in Ireland connected to it – the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War – truly was crucial for the formation of new Irish identities and the reformulation or disappearance of established ones. As Sebastian Barry’s Irish soldier protagonist in A Long Long Way has to realise at the end of the novel, on a French battlefield in 1918, anticipating the obliteration of his class and identity at home: “All sorts of Ireland were no more” (Barry 2006, 286). The changes and turbulences of those years have affected Ireland and concepts of Irish identity to the present day. The narratives constructed around the events of this period – in political discourses, memory and literature – have played an important role in these processes.

It is this nexus that is the starting point of this study. Crucially, in such historical contexts, ‘historical’ literature is understood not only as merely ‘documenting’ the past but as mirroring, shaping and challenging discourses, perspectives and ideologies of specific socio-historical situations. As Fredric Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious, texts are “socially symbolic act[s]” that “reflect a fundamental dimension of our collective thinking and our collective fantasies about history and reality” (Jameson 1981, 34) and that are both formed and destabilised by (repressed) historical realities (cf. Jameson 1981, 20). Literature, approached by Jameson from the angle of ‘genre’, serves as “a proving ground for the dominant anxieties and ideals of an age” (Buchanan 2006, 88). This understanding underpins my approach to the Irish war writings that are in the focus of this book.

The overall aim of this study is to investigate the processes of reflecting, constructing, challenging, discarding and re-envisioning Irish identities in representations of the Great War in Irish drama and fiction, from the time of the war to ← 12 | 13 → the present day. This can be broken down to several guiding questions and tasks: How do Irish literary works present Irish identities affected by the Great War and its political, social and cultural legacy? In which contexts and discourses are these literary representations of war embedded? Why has there been an obvious need, particularly in recent Irish writing, to recover such identities and how is this revision carried out? How do contemporary literary works deal with the Irish past in their presentation of identities? The focal point of this work, the issue of identity, of course is a rather broad category and, consequently, this project is informed by a comparatively wide range of approaches to the war writings. This includes ideas and theories of nation and national belonging and identification, as well as the closely connected aspects of class, gender and the body. Considering the more recent Irish literary representations of the Great War, the interplay of constructions of memory and constructions of identity also is of great importance.

The fraught history and the difficult status of the Great War in Ireland are very much reflected in the make-up of the corpus of texts that address the topic. Irish Great War literature2 is a comparatively small and heterogeneous genre, which is slightly surprising – notwithstanding the war’s problematic status – considering the impact of the war and the strong tendency for national self-inspection that characterises much Irish writing. Actually, it is not entirely unproblematic to speak of ‘war literature’ in the case of Ireland. There are only a few texts that correspond to the traditional conventions of the genre with its focus on first-hand experience and grim tales from the battlefields and trenches3 – there simply is no Irish Wilfred Owen, as there is no Irish Henri Barbusse, Erich-Maria Remarque or Ernst Jünger. The engagement with Irish works of and about the Great War consequently requires an expanded notion of war literature which attributes greater prominence to events and phenomena that lie beyond the immediacy of the battlefield, like the Irish home front, the role of women and the legacy of the war and its relevance for the Irish conflicts of the following years.

The amnesiac tendencies and the limited literary production in Ireland concerning the Great War are also reflected in the long scholarly neglect of the topic. Apart from few quasi-canonical works such as Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie ← 13 | 14 → (1928) or Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985), this study focuses on prose and dramatic writings that have previously attracted little scholarly attention – works like Margaret Barrington’s My Cousin Justin, Sean Dowling’s The Bird in the Net, Tom Phelan’s The Canal Bridge or Dermot Bolger’s Walking the Road. Poetry will not be covered extensively in my project as there are already two inspiring monographs on the topic by Fran Brearton (cf. Brearton 2000) and Jim Haughey (cf. Haughey 2002) that neatly complement each other, together offering a complete and detailed view of the Irish and Northern Irish poetic responses to the Great War, including aspects of identity. Generally, broader academic interest in Irish Great War writing is a fairly recent phenomenon, as is the historical re-discovery of Ireland’s role in the Great War that preceded it in the 1980s, largely beginning in the 1990s and only becoming more substantial since the 2000s. The topic has been integrated as a facet within larger contexts and surveys (cf. Kiberd 1996, Grene 1999, Brown 2011; Johnson 2003 approaches Irish war literature within a cultural geography approach), yet, it is rarely engaged with exclusively and extensively, i. e. critics have rarely addressed a larger part of or the entire spectrum of texts; there is only a small number of larger studies focusing on individual aspects of the topic (cf. Kosok 2007 on English and Irish drama and the war; Taylor 2013 on the war novelist Patrick MacGill).4 Among the most active and prolific scholars in the field are Terry Phillips, who has produced a series of journal articles and book chapters on various aspects of the topic (cf. Phillips), the historian Keith Jeffery, who repeatedly addresses Irish war writing in his extensive explorations of the Irish history of the Great War (cf. Jeffery), and Heinz Kosok, who is particularly interested in the war in Irish drama (cf. Kosok). Still, despite the pioneering and inspiring work of these and several other scholars, to whom this study is deeply indebted, the topic remains a comparatively open field. There is a considerable number of texts, even within this narrow genre, that have remained almost untouched by scholarly criticism. To embed some of these texts in the greater context of Irish war writing, using the guiding principle of identity and identity politics, is the purpose of this book.

I will begin with three sections that introduce key concepts and backgrounds upon which the following discussion of Irish war drama and fiction is based. The section on the theoretical context provides a concise overview of the spectrum ← 14 | 15 → of theoretical approaches that informs my interpretations in varying degrees of directness, including, among others, concepts of Stuart Hall, Benedict Anderson, Prasenjit Duara, Maurice Halbwachs, Jay Winter, and Elaine Scarry. The following section on the historical context traces the complex Irish history of the Great War and its legacy from the early 1910s to the present, specifically focusing on the intricate and contradictory interaction of identities and allegiances. Finally, the section on the literary context addresses the issue of writing the war, including an adjustment of the concept of ‘war literature’ to the Irish situation. Also, the conditions that led to the scarcity of Irish war writing are investigated and a survey of the existing war works is provided, including the responses to the Great War in poetry. The section concludes with a brief look at Easter Rising literature, which could be seen as a recurrent rival discourse to the writing of the Great War.

This is the backdrop against which a selection of Irish war plays and novels are read in the second part of this book. The selection of texts was largely determined by the existing surveys of Irish war writings by Heinz Kosok (cf. Kosok 2007), Keith Jeffery (cf. Jeffery 1994, Jeffery 2000) and Terence Brown (cf. Brown 2011). Due to the overall scarcity and disparity of the genre, the criteria for selection were rather broad: dramatic or prose works that substantially, but not necessarily exclusively, address the First World War and its legacy in all their facets, from both modern and ‘historical’ Irish or Northern Irish perspectives. Since the focus of this study is not centrally on questions of aesthetics and genre, dramatic and prose works are not approached separately.5 With the exception of chapter III. 2, the readings are structured chronologically, beginning with two key texts which have been identified, debatably, as the only major dramatic war works “set in Ireland, Irish in theme and subject-matter” (Kosok 2008, 184) to be written until the early 1980s, G. B. Shaw’s satire O’Flaherty VC: A Recruiting Pamphlet (1915) and Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie (1928). Both works are underpinned by the shared socialist impetus of their authors. They concentrate on unflattering depictions of the Irish home front during the Great War, investigating class issues as well as the ambiguous transformative power of wartime heroism, and how the war reshapes and complicates concepts of masculine and feminine identities, including, in the case of O’Casey, the consequences of disability.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (October)
Irischer Soldat Westfront Erster Weltkrieg World War I Nationalism Erinnerungskultur
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 293 pp.

Biographical notes

Martin Decker (Author)

Martin Decker teaches English and Irish literature and culture at the University of Regensburg. His research interests include Irish drama, the intersections of history and literature, and contemporary fiction.


Title: Irish Identities and the Great War in Drama and Fiction
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296 pages