Remembering young Willie McBride – and others


Having noted this morning’s Irish Times report that a new archive was launched in Dublin yesterday listing the 49,000 Irishmen who died in the First World War, I went to the website and did a search for a great-uncle of mine. Sure enough, there he was. His name, his home address, the fact that he was in the Irish Guards, 2nd Battalion. That’s all. No word on his age, how long he was in army uniform,  when he died, where he died. Just his home town in Donegal and the British regiment of which he was a member.  And I thought of that most poignant of war songs The Green Fields of France, sometimes known simply as Willie McBride:

I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen

When you joined the great falling in nineteen fifteen.

Well I hope you died well and I hope you died clean

Or young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Heart-breaking, were you to think of it long enough. Young men, scarcely out of boyhood, bamboozled into giving up their young lives for sweet fuck all.

This archive is part of a major initiative by the southern government in conjunction with the northern government to honour those Irishmen who died in the so-called Great War. The notion is that we have air-brushed their enlistment and deaths out of our history, and it is only right that we remember them. But of course, as Bernadette McAliskey pointed out in an interview I did with her for my book Whose Past Is It Anyway?  those Irishmen never were forgotten. They were forgotten by the state, yes, but never by the families. Their photographs and other relics had a place in so many Irish households, and their memory was kept forever fresh in those homes. What is being righted now is not our forgetfulness but the forgetfulness of the state.

That said, why is it now that we’re focusing on them? Is it because we’re into the centenary of the 1914-18 war? In part, yes. But politicians never do anything without part of their mind calculating how this action or that statement might benefit them politically. You can be sure that for at least the next two years and maybe four years we will be swamped with public archives and memorials and speeches about the First World War. Why? Because that would be one way in which the southern politicians – and some  northern politicians – would hope to blur any  focus on the Easter Rising. If the Rising can be set so deeply in the muddy soil of trench warfare, maybe the Irish people will feel just a little bit ambiguous about it. Maybe the Great War memory will overshadow the relatively minor skirmish of 1916. Maybe the Irish people willl have used up their emotional energy by the time 2016 comes round, will have felt so much for those many young men who gave their lives in France, their empathy with those other young men who gave their lives in Dublin will be diluted. History will be seen as a variety of shades of grey, and the bright colours will not show for the men and women who seized the GPO. We’ll have been taught to see the complexity of history to the point where fully-committed honouring of the men and women of Easter 1916 will become near-impossible.

Cynical? Conspiracy-theorising? I think not.


16 Responses to Remembering young Willie McBride – and others

  1. mooretwin January 11, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    Let’s hope you’re right.

    It’s incredible how so many Irish people still consider the Easter “Rising” in positive terms. Such a terrible, unjustifiable act that has only served to inspire the wicked.

    • John Patton January 11, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

      You echo the views of many in the court of Louis Philippe in 1848. I thought one of my history teachers in St Columb’s sixty years ago was the last one, committed to that mindset.

    • chris flynn January 11, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

      What country does not honour their dead???Easter rising happened because of the failed policies of a british govt that was and is still responsible for the deaths of MILLIONS of irish people.From before the great famines that were used as land clearance policys to the present day.England only used its colonlies to supply wealth and food to its people at the expence of other nations,slavery in its many forms was practisied on the irish nation for the profit of of others including the landed gentry that implemented its decisions…..its time we called the english what they are, cold blooded murdering scum.To those who were misguided enough to support their wars in europe and africa i offer my pity….To honour the filth who murdered the brave men of 1916 is an insult.

      • mooretwin January 12, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

        Those who engaged, with no mandate, in an anti-democratic insurrection against the wishes of the Irish people deserve contempt not honour. Their legacy is thousands of people murdered by republicans over the ensuing 100 years and still happening today.

  2. john patton January 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    My grandfather O ‘Donnell’s brother died within days of arriving at the Front

  3. ben madigan January 11, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    do you know what happened to WWI and WWII veterans whan they returned home to Belfast? They got no nice welcome from the Loyalists of Ulster
    Have a look at “Catholic ex-servicemen don’t count”and “The Leopard doesn’t change its spots” – (which traces truly frightening patterns of hostility) to see their fate

  4. Ceannaire January 11, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    “It’s incredible how so many Irish people still consider the “Great War” in positive terms.”

    Fixed that for you, mooretwin.

    • mooretwin January 12, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

      I’m unaware of any Irish person who views the Great War in positive terms.

  5. pretzellogic January 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    Let’s hope for the sake of balance and fairness when we get to the Easter 1916 commemorations that you apply the same tone and language you used when blogging on the 4th Nov discussing this year’s upcoming cenotaph commemorations. The only times I can remember you asking people to remove their verbal balaclavas was when they were disagreeing with your peace and I for the life me can’t think why you do it.

  6. Argenta January 11, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

    “Young men,scarcely out of boyhood,bamboozled into giving up their young lives for sweet fuck all”
    You could almost apply that to aspects of the Provo campaign!

  7. philip kelly January 11, 2014 at 11:44 pm #

    the main reason that nationalist Ireland joined the British army to go to the front was because Redmond was promised home rule if they went to the war and my grandfather was one of them joining the Munster fusiliers and died at the Somme my grandmother received no pension and died in poverty with her only child my dad the irony of this is my other grandfather was a founding member of the ITWU in Belfast and was a republican socialist who worked closely with James Connolly in 1907/11when he worked as his election agent to better the lot of the catholic and Protestant mill workers with some success until the uvf and the ulster brigade returned from France and were called upon by unionist politicians to wreak havoc on the catholic population in Belfast in order to stop Irish independence hence 94 years of discontent and war some things never change its the same unionist politicians who get under educated people to do their dirty work in 2013/14

  8. Am Ghobsmacht January 12, 2014 at 4:01 am #

    Dr C

    I recommend a stroll up to St Annes to have a look at their copies of the ‘Books of the Dead’.

    It’s a wee octagonal cabinet with a tiny watchful soldier standing atop.

    It lists the name of every dead Irishman from WWI.

    What struck me the most (apart from spookiily selecting the right book for my family name and opening it at the correct page) was the border of the book.
    It is an intricate splice of imperial style and celtic decor.

    A wonderful depiction of being British AND Irish.

    Alas, by the time the books were completed I think most people in the island decided to be British OR Irish.

  9. Dan January 12, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    I think everybody is gearing up to re write the events of 1914 to 1922 to suit their own POLITICAL stance. It saddens me that the some of the Educated in SF still use Verbal, Political, Personal and sometimes Gender abuse to gain advantage. Give human respect first and last then articulate point of veiw.

  10. Am Ghobsmacht January 16, 2014 at 7:54 am #

    Just a thought, are there any plans to commemorate the battle of Clontarf this year?

  11. john garry May 11, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    mooretown It’s incredible how so many Irish people still consider the Easter “Rising” in positive terms. Such a terrible, unjustifiable act that has only served to inspire the wicked. really are you on drugs or just another bigot?

    • Jude Collins May 11, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

      John – you’re entitled to your view and indeed I welcome it. But try not to name-call/abuse…