Memorable voices invigorate Ireland Anzacs study

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Kildea, Jeff. Anzacs and Ireland. UNSW Press, 2008. RRP $39.95

ANZACS in Ireland Just over four years ago, a memorial plaque was unveiled at Belvedere College, the Jesuit school in Dublin. It honoured all former students who died as victims of war. It therefore honoured men whose beliefs took them in quite different directions.

Many Irishmen volunteered to fight for Britain and the Empire in the First World War. Others took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and in the subsequent struggle against Britain for Irish independence. A third group, whose members painfully divided the Irish people, were those who died in the civil war of 1922-3.

Jeff Kildea's book, Anzacs and Ireland, goes some way towards explaining to a new readership why the gesture of reconciliation — not just at Belvedere but nearly everywhere else — was so long in coming about.

His central focus is the Irish and Australian forces who fought side by side at Gallipoli. He rightly deplores the fact that to have fought in what is seen as the 'wrong war' is to be an embarrassment, best forgotten. The 'Great Oblivion', as Irish historian FX Martin described the mood of denial, obscured the part played by nationalists as well as Empire loyalists in the war against Germany.

Some thought that by showing solidarity with Britain, they would hasten home rule for Ireland. Others saw Ireland's future within the Empire. For Irish-Australians, the same tensions existed, though from a different perspective.

In April 1916, just one year after the Gallipoli disaster, the problem of divided loyalties was made more acute by the Easter Rising in Dublin. Doomed to fail, it became, like Gallipoli, a legend more powerful than a military success could have been. The Irish men and women who raised the republican flag might have been dismissed as dreamers or fanatics — if the savagery of the British response had not made them all heroes.

Although Kildea aims at even-handedness, his account of the background of the Rising is curiously confused and muffled. The Irish who fought at Gallipoli, he says, did so 'with a similar mix of motives that inspired their cousins down under; they enlisted to serve Ireland, recently granted home rule, as much as the empire'. To suggest that Ireland already had home rule is quite mistaken. When Britain decided to defer home rule until the end of the war, the Irish had good reason to be sceptical; there had been so many delays, so much bad faith.

The leader of the Irish parliamentary party, John Redmond, believed Ireland's best hope lay in supporting England's war. Others, like Pearse and Connolly, decided to seize the moment and declare a republic. Right or wrong? As Yeats pondered the question: 'Was it needless death after all? /For England may keep faith.'

Kildea's sketchy treatment of the background of the Easter Rising oversimplies the section in which he describes the part played by Anzacs who were caught up in the fighting. On leave in Ireland, preparing to go back to the trenches, they were called on to help deal with the rebels. In one bizarre episode, a few Australian sharpshoooters on the roof of Trinity College were said to have saved the building. A few months later, in a ceremony in the Provost's Garden. these and others of the Allied troops were awarded silver trophies. As Kildea acknowledges, these men had little idea of what it was all about. That is one reason why Anzacs and Ireland makes sad reading.

The study is most memorable for giving a sense of individual voices. Kildea's valuable research in primary sources brings a universal quality to the experience of war, whether in the Dublin streets or the larger battles. The letters home to Australia, sometimes shocking in their naïvete, are very moving, as are Kildea's accounts of the neglected war memorials and unvisited graves which now are getting due remembrance.

LINK:

Anzacs and Ireland at UNSW Press


Brenda NiallBrenda Niall is an Australian biographer, literary critic and journalist. Her most recent book is Life Class: the Education of a Biographer, published by MUP.

 

 

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Interesting review. Thanks Brenda.
Margaret Rush | 19 April 2008


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