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Irish Literature and the First World War

Culture, Identity and Memory

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Terry Phillips

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.

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Introduction. War, Nation and Memory

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Introduction 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 appro- priateness, and without a formal ceremony. The inscription and the con- troversy 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 writ- ing 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 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,...

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