Irish Literature and the First World War

Culture, Identity and Memory

by Terry Phillips (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 302 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 72


This book analyses poetry and prose written by combatant and non-combatant Irish writers during the First World War, focusing on key works influenced by Irish, English and European literary traditions. It highlights the complex positions adopted by writers in relation to the international conflict and to Irish debates about nationhood, which resist reduction to the simple binaries of Unionist/pro-war and Nationalist/anti-war. The book goes on to discuss the literature of the decades following the war, looking at how the conflict was remembered in the two parts of the now divided island, both by individuals and collectively, and investigating the dynamic interrelationship between personal recollection and public memory. In conclusion, the author discusses contemporary literature about the war, which often examines family memory as well as collective memory, and explores its role in the narrative of nationhood, both north and south of the border.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: War, Nation and Memory
  • Section I: War and Nation
  • Chapter One: Irish Soldiers in the Imperial Army: Francis Ledwidge and Thomas Kettle
  • Chapter Two: Debating the Nation: Patrick MacGill and St John Ervine
  • Chapter Three: Nation and Religion: Katharine Tynan, Winifred Letts and Eva Gore-Booth
  • Chapter Four: ‘Patriotism is not enough’: Mrs Victor Rickard and George Bernard Shaw
  • Section II: Remembering War
  • Chapter Five: Disenchanted Memory
  • Chapter Six: Constructing Memory, North and South
  • Chapter Seven: Challenging Memory in Northern Ireland: Michael Longley, Christina Reid and Frank McGuinness
  • Chapter Eight: Recovering Forgotten Memory: Jennifer Johnston, Sebastian Barry and Dermot Bolger
  • Afterword: The Significance of Irish First World War Writing
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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War, Nation and Memory

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

These lines from ‘To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God’1 are inscribed beneath the bust of Thomas Kettle in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, under the simple statement ‘Killed at Givenchy’, remarkable for its quality of understatement. The bust was erected after much debate about its appropriateness, and without a formal ceremony. The inscription and the controversy reflect Kettle’s own prediction about his memory, ‘these men [the Easter rebels] will go down to history as heroes and martyrs, and I will go down…as a bloody British officer’;2 while the carefully chosen lines of poetry suggest an answer to one of the enduring questions raised by writing about the First World War in any country.

Both the political dimensions of war memory, and the question of why men fought, have particular relevance in many erstwhile colonized nations. Recent work on the conflict has extended its consideration beyond the main European protagonists, in the words of Santanu Das to ‘embed the ← 1 | 2 → experience and memory of the First World War in a more multiracial and international framework.’3 While most of the contributors to Das’s volume devote much-needed attention to the role of non-European races, it also gives some consideration to both former dominions with populations of predominantly European descent, and to Ireland. Some parallel to the differing Irish experiences north and south of the border, might be found, for example in ‘Australia coming to know itself as a nation.’4 Das’s comments about volunteer colonial troops highlights the multiplicity of possible reasons for men of all countries, including the imperial nations, to fight, ‘Prestige, masculinity, social aspiration, a sense of adventure, naivety about the nature of war […] financial reward was a major incentive.’5 Arguably this is a range of motives that has received too little attention even among the nationals of the imperial nations, and literary accounts of Irish soldiers reveal a very wide spectrum of motives.

The contribution of Irish soldiers to the British War effort in 1914–18 represents a very distinctive element in the recent, more internationally focused consideration of the contribution of participant nations, and reflects in part debates about Ireland’s status as a former colony.6 However, while the chronological coincidence of moves towards some form of Irish self-government and the outbreak of the First World War is unique, the relationship between participation in the war and both independence and the emergence of national consciousness can be seen in a number of countries. As Das points out, ‘in the former dominions such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, war service is often made the ground of national identity’, while ‘In some of the colonies, there was also a conscious degree of political calculation: parties such as the Indian ← 2 | 3 → National Congress supported the war in the hope of greater political autonomy as a reward.’7

What Declan Kiberd called Ireland’s amnesia about the First World War has been addressed, debated and indeed challenged in much academic writing of the last two decades.8 However, the primary focus has been historical, and apart from general surveys of literature within primarily historical works, there has been comparatively little discussion of Irish First World War literature, which may seem surprising given the continuing importance of the First World War in discussions of literature and conflict. There has, however, been an increasing interest in some Irish writers about the conflict, and two full-length studies of poetry, Jim Haughey’s The First World War in Irish Poetry and Fran Brearton’s The Great War in Irish Poetry have been published.9 While Haughey has a detailed chapter on Ireland’s soldier poets, Brearton’s main focus is not on war literature written at the time, apart from a consideration of Yeats and Robert Graves, whose inclusion (as an English-educated officer in a Welsh regiment) depends on a broad definition of an Irish writer.

The first section of this book deals with work written during the conflict by both combatant and non-combatant writers. The question of which works should be included in a discussion of Irish literature of the First World War is complicated by a number of factors, some of which relate to Ireland’s debated status as a nation within the Empire. The precise nature of Irish nationhood was of course a key element in the continued debates about Home Rule from the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, increasing in intensity with the protracted debates of 1912–1914.10 The role of literature and culture in debates about Irish nationhood, particularly after ← 3 | 4 → the death of Parnell, when ‘A disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned from parliamentary politics’,11 manifested itself in different and increasingly antithetical ways in the Literary Revival and the Gaelic League. The combatant and non-combatant writers discussed came from a variety of social, political, religious and cultural backgrounds, all of which influenced their responses to the war. Terence Brown has pointed out the unavoidable interconnection between Ireland and its nearest neighbour12 and these writers, as writers and readers of English, inherit a mixed tradition which encompasses English pastoral and romantic writing, as well as Irish folk tales, Celtic mythology and the writing of the Literary Revival; in some cases, also, they are influenced by emerging European Modernism. The influence of a revived interest in Celtic mythology may, paradoxically, be seen in both radical nationalist writing and writing about the First World War. Many who write about the conflict are Anglo-Irish writers, in part reflecting this group’s disproportionate representation among the educated classes, such as Edward Dunsany and St John Ervine, and many have strong connections with the English as well as the Irish literary scene.

Recruitment in Ireland during the war is now estimated at 140,000 men, which, with the addition of reservists, comes to 210,000.13 However, Irish combatants were to be found not only in the three Irish Divisions, the 10th and 16th Irish and the 36th Ulsters, but were present in English, Scottish and Welsh regiments as well as Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, South African, and ultimately United States regiments. Some of these had specific Irish connections, such as the London Irish, and the Tyneside Irish, but most did not. It thus becomes difficult to estimate the precise extent of Irish ← 4 | 5 → involvement in the First World War, and as a consequence, which combatant literature might be included in a study of Irish Literature of the conflict. The case of Patrick MacGill provides an interesting example. MacGill enlisted in the London Irish Rifles, as he was working in Westminster Abbey library at the time war broke out. He had left Ireland at the age of fourteen in 1904, but his consciousness of himself as Irish led him to enlist in an ‘Irish’ regiment. However, as he himself points out, admittedly with some exaggeration, ‘rumour has it that the Colonel and I are the only two real Irishmen in the battalion’.14 Moreover, MacGill’s own writing is largely uninfluenced by either the Literary Revival or the Gaelic League. Nevertheless, he is a self-consciously Irish writer, although his literary influences are largely English. It might of course be reasonable to argue that Robert Graves is also self-consciously Irish, as Fran Brearton implicitly does by including him in her monograph. He certainly defines himself as Irish in Goodbye to All That.15 Nevertheless he was educated at Charterhouse, served in a Welsh regiment, and nowhere addresses specifically Irish issues.

A similar issue might be raised in relation to some non-combatant writers, particularly those of Anglo-Irish descent who moved between Britain and Ireland, and some spent the war years in England. Of these George Bernard Shaw, although he was educated in Ireland, provides what might be superficially seen as a case similar to that of Graves, since he left the country at the age of twenty. Here, however, a distinction can be made and Chapter Four discusses an example of Shaw’s work which specifically addresses an Irish audience and Irish issues, O’Flaherty VC.16 The lines of identity are imperfect and are to some extent the consequence of individual judgements. Such distinctions are not confined to considerations of First World War literature, but they do have a particular resonance in this area, linked as they are to some of the crucial political and cultural ideas being debated at the time. ← 5 | 6 →

The general study of First World War literature has itself undergone considerable revision over the last thirty years. Before that it was dominated by the work of soldier poets, mainly but not exclusively educated in English public schools, which produced a somewhat monolithic definition of war poetry, focusing on experience at the battle front and tending, again not exclusively, to privilege poetry of suffering and protest.17 The work of critics of fiction and particularly a growing interest in the work of women writers has successfully broadened this field in recent years, and enables a critic of Irish First World War literature to work from a broader canvas.18 The general field now encompasses a range of issues relating to the experience of combatants and non-combatants, including issues of gender, nationality, political orientation and cultural influences.19

These are all present in the field of Irish literature but often complicated by the issues alluded to above. We might start by a consideration of the epigraph at the start of this chapter – ‘Not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor.’ This is arguably true of a number of combatants and supporters of the war effort anywhere. One might for example note Patrick MacGill’s Cockney friend who commented, ‘Well, matey, I done it to get away from my old gal’s jore – now you’ve got it!’20 Nevertheless the issue of motivation for joining the armed forces is clearly even more complicated in an Ireland on the verge of civil war, in which two independent volunteer armies, the ← 6 | 7 → Ulster Volunteers and the National Volunteers were recruiting. In particular the willingness of many nationalists to join the armed forces requires explanation. That most commonly offered is linked to the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1914. This provided evidence of the British government taking nationalist aspirations seriously, which enabled those nationalists convinced of the rightness of the allied case, and committed to the defence of small nations, such as Belgium or Serbia, to enlist with confidence. In this they were encouraged by John Redmond’s speech at Woodenbridge in September 1914, which, while it split the Volunteer movement, had, with its strong endorsement of the morality of the war, the effect of encouraging recruitment amongst nationalists.21 Allied to this was the conviction that in order to secure their aspirations after the war, Irishmen needed to demonstrate their loyalty, particularly after Sir Edward Carson’s commitment of the Ulster Volunteers to the war effort. The commitment of unionists, in spite of the recent illegal gunrunning activities by Ulster unionists and their supporters, was underpinned by political logic, in that their very raison d’être was support for the Crown. It is also worth noting the historically high rate of enlistment in the armed forces in Ireland. Linda Colley points out that in 1830 the British army contained more Irish than English troops and that ‘even at the start of the twentieth century, Irishmen still made up 13 per cent of the army.’22

However, I would wish to add two caveats to these frequently adduced explanations, caveats which are supported by a study of the literary output. One is that the commonly used categories: nationalist (variously subdivided into constitutional nationalists, republicans, advanced nationalists, physical force nationalists) and unionist (subdivided into Ulster unionists and Southern unionists) even allowing for these subdivisions are much more fluid than might at first appear.23 ← 7 | 8 →

Nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century was a powerful ideological force, perhaps best summed up by Ernst Renan’s description, in a lecture originally delivered at the Sorbonne in 1882:

A nation is a living soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the common possession of a rich heritage of memories; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down.24

This comment, which opens the third section of Renan’s influential essay, comes after he has, in the previous section, in turn rejected ethnic origin, shared language, shared religion, geography and ‘community of interest’ as the definition of a nation.25 The very intangibility of Renan’s definition provides a useful insight into its influence in the Ireland of the early twentieth century. Thomas Hennessey comments that ‘the eve of the First World War saw an Ireland in which a fluid sense of national identity was evident. Neither Britishness nor Irishness were mutually exclusive identities.’26 The definition of oneself as Irish applied to all the inhabitants of the island. Many might have seen their nationality in Renan’s terms, as something indefinable and more than a purely regional identity. For some, but at the time of the outbreak of the war a minority, this was an exclusive identity. There were those who defined their national consciousness as something which should be co-existent with the state, in Gellner’s terms, ‘primarily a political principle which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent’.27 Others preferred varying degrees of self-government ← 8 | 9 → within the larger British entity, an entity which one might term a ‘state-nation.’28 The term ‘unionist’ was used to describe those who made explicit this limitation to regional identity and consciously sought the maintenance of the British link, expressed most obviously by those who signed the Ulster covenant in 1912. This latter group might in turn be divided between those for whom an Irish identity was strong and might have been defined in Renan’s terms as a ‘spiritual principle’, but who nevertheless wished to maintain the link with Britain; and those who, while they acknowledged some form of regional identity, gave much greater emphasis to what they saw as their ethnic Britishness.29

Literary texts provide evidence that one can draw out a multiplicity of different positions along the spectrum of Irishness and Britishness. Further they suggest that subject positions based on national identity can shift within the same writer, and not necessarily in a logical, chronological sequence. This provides an important corrective to one of the effects of the clearly observable phenomenon that history is often read from the standpoint of the present, which not only leads to interpretations of the past which suit the political imperatives of the time of the interpretation,30 but also to reductive readings, which eliminate complexity in the service of a retrospective narrative, dividing writers into the crude binaries of pro-war and anti-war, and of nationalist and unionist. A detailed study of Irish literature of the First World War provides a useful counter to this.

The second caveat to the commonly asserted motives for Irish enlistment is that, as in other countries there were a range of motives for enlisting, not precluding a belief that the war was the right course of action in ← 9 | 10 → the current situation, but also including a sense of adventure, a desire to escape, a seeking for economic betterment. Catriona Pennell comments that ‘Eyewitness accounts of the type of send-off British troops received as they left Ireland during the first weeks of war counter post-war myths about negative Irish reactions to the outbreak of war. Cheering crowds were common.’31 The wide range of motives for enlistment are addressed in some of the literary outputs to be considered, most overtly and humorously in Bernard Shaw’s one-act play, O’Flaherty VC. Thus in Ireland the range of motives, as in other countries, was complex, mixed and resistant to categorization, but with added political and cultural nuances which did not apply elsewhere. This has a crucial effect on a consideration of literature, particularly in the case of nationalists, sometimes complicating and sometimes negating the sense of disillusion as the war progressed. This can be seen in some of the poetry of Ireland’s foremost soldier poet, Francis Ledwidge, for example.

Further issues unique to Ireland emerge at specific moments. In examining the growth of disillusion in English and French literature, the year 1916, with the effect of the military disasters on the Somme and at Verdun, is often taken as a watershed. 1916 plays an additionally crucial role in the Irish experience because of the Easter Rising of that year. The effect of the coincidence of events had a far-reaching impact on Irish politics, but also a profound influence on Irish writing. However, once more, one should guard against viewing its effects too simply. The Rising brought Irishmen into direct conflict with one another, as Irish regiments were used to put down the rebellion; and in indirect conflict, as it diverted resources away from the war effort. The executions which followed changed the course of Irish politics. Nevertheless, while the political effects were divisive, literary responses are on the whole less judgemental and capable of accommodating both sympathy and dissent within the same writer. This is clearly observable in the work of Katharine Tynan, whose autobiographical writing, while expressing some limited sympathy for the 1916 rebels, describes hostility ← 10 | 11 → between England and Ireland as ‘a tragedy’, and who continues to write poems supportive of the war effort.32 The effect of the Rising on the writing of Francis Ledwidge is particularly instructive. It produced his most famous and frequently anthologized poem, ‘Thomas McDonagh’, as well as poems variously expressing regret at not being in Ireland at the time of the Rising, and asserting his own contribution, as a soldier serving in the war, to ultimate Irish freedom. His biographer Alice Curtayne records his declaration that ‘If I heard the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t go out now to stop them. They could come!’ but he nevertheless refused the suggestion of seeking a discharge on medical grounds.33 The implication is that Ledwidge’s own sympathies were divided, and that he did not maintain a single definitive stance.

In considering this ambivalence, it is instructive to note that, in the context of a more recent conflict, Northern Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon have resisted attempts to make them speak for one side or another. Heaney, in his address on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘Crediting Poetry’ thinks back to his boyhood during the Second World War and describes himself as being ‘schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament’, foreseeing for himself a future ‘where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, post-colonial and, taken together, simply impossible.’34 Politicians sometimes have to take stances, although even politicians find too rigid a stance difficult, for the complexities of day to day living resist such rigidities. It is the task of poets, novelists and playwrights to reflect and express such complexity.

The second section of the book opens with two chapters which consider literature written in the two decades following the war, in each of the two parts of the now divided island. After the Armistice, as is well ← 11 | 12 → documented, a range of literary responses emerged through the 1920s, including Goodbye to All That, and the German writer Eric Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which conveyed a retrospective disillusion with the war coloured by the disappointments of its aftermath. Much has recently been written by both political and cultural historians on the repression of memory of the conflict in the Free State, and its appropriation by the unionist majority in Northern Ireland, although the extent of the official amnesia in the Free State has also recently been challenged by Keith Jeffery.35 In fact, an examination of literature of the period exposes a more complex process, in which writing within the island of Ireland partakes predominantly of the disillusion, increasingly expressed in writing in both Britain and the United States, but nuanced by the particular context of each part of the island. Such disillusion is manifested sometimes in a process of forgetting, now recognized as a response to trauma, which plays its own part in the formation of memory. It is arguable that this, rather than politically motivated repression of memory accounts for a relative paucity of writing on the subject. Furthermore what marks out Irish disillusion or disenchantment as different from that of other participant nations is that disillusion goes beyond the war, and includes the human cost of revolution, and especially the damaging civil war which followed. Some writers, such as Lennox Robinson, Eimar O’Duffy and Margaret Barrington, include the First World War in a depiction of three successive conflicts. Others, such as Liam O’Flaherty, express a disillusion intensified by a political solution which brought its own problems, sometimes reinterpreting the events of the war in the light of what followed. Even in Ulster, the literature, as opposed to official memory, has surprisingly little to say about what is often represented as Ulster’s finest hour, which may suggest that here too, writers experience a degree of disillusion and disenchantment which manifests itself in not writing about the conflict. ← 12 | 13 →

The final two chapters are devoted to more recent writing. In contrast to the decades immediately following the conflict, the First World War has become a significant theme in a range of writing about the war published on both sides of the border. This may be linked to recognition of the importance of both memory and national identity. Critics in the south, for example Colin Graham, have argued that the country has entered an era of ‘post-nationalism’ which contrasts markedly with the predominance of national identity as an ideal a century ago.36 Others have sought in various ways to challenge the national narrative. Closely linked with such revision is the recent focus on memory, both individual and collective, by cultural theorists and historians. Contemporary and recent literature has examined family memory as well as collective memory and its role in the construction of identity, at both individual and national level, and this has inevitably involved some consideration of the First World War. A re-examination of the First World War has been even more significant in Northern Ireland, where the question of identity remains a key issue, and is fundamental to the search for common ground, which has ensured that, at both the level of the individual and the group, memory has a political significance which has resulted in some notable challenges to the hitherto dominant official memory.

Some of these issues are addressed in poetry, plays and novels about the First World War, written in recent decades. Writers as diverse as Michael Longley, John Hewitt and Sebastian Barry foreground the importance of family memory and its complex relationship to the collective memory of both parts of the island, while Frank McGuiness’s play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, demonstrates the effects of a dominant collective memory on the individual. Above all these texts profoundly emphasize the effects of war on both combatants and non-combatants, and the sometimes neglected effects of group affiliation on individual relationships. Like the writers considered in the earlier chapters, they provide an insight into the effects of war which evade reductive categorization. ← 13 | 14 →

1 Thomas Kettle, Poems and Parodies, BiblioLife (London: Duckworth & Co, 1916), pp. 15–16.

2 This commonly quoted remark is to be found in a variety of sources including J.B. Lyons, The Enigma of Tom Kettle (Dublin: The Glendale Press, 1983), p. 293, and Terence Denman, Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1992), p. 145.

3 Race, Empire and First World War Writing, ed. by Santanu Das (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 1.


VIII, 302
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Combatant experience Irish identity Role of memory War literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 302 pp.

Biographical notes

Terry Phillips (Author)

Terry Phillips is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of English at Liverpool Hope University, where she was Dean of Arts and Humanities until her retirement in 2010. She convenes the Irish Studies Research Group at Liverpool Hope University and has published widely on Irish literature and First World War literature.


Title: Irish Literature and the First World War
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