It is a topic which still, nearly 100 years later, causes some disquiet for people. The Irish men who fought and died in World War 1.
For many decades few, if any, openly acknowledged those who had fought or died in this war but over the last few years more and more communities are moving beyond the difficulties of the past and recognising that the loss of any life, regardless of the conflict, is one to be mourned.
Over 200,000 Irishmen fought in World War 1, in several theatres and just under 30,000 died. Over 2,000 of these men hailed from Co Leitrim with 250 dying on battlefields around the globe.
There is no doubt that Irish participation in World War I has been and continues, for some, to be a very divisive issue. While both nationalist and unionist leaders initially backed the British war effort in 1914, it was against a backdrop of ongoing political and social unrest in Ireland, an island which then, was part of the British Empire. There were many for and against Irish involvement in the war. Of course Britain’s intention to impose conscription in Ireland in 1918 also provoked widespread resistance, adding to ill feeling. Conscription remained unimplemented but its suggestion certainly didn’t reconcile many to ongoing Irish involvement in the war.
Of course many Protestants enlisted, but the fact remains that many Catholic Irishmen, amongst them thousands of National Volunteers, also joined. Many followed the call of John Redmond as he tried to secure Home Rule and enlisted in the British Army, others joined for ‘a taste of adventure’, not realising the harsh realities of war.
With Ireland’s own battle for Independence starting shortly after the cessation of hostilities in the Great War, the idea of remembering those who fought as part of the British war effort between 1914-1918 fell into an almost uncomfortable part of our history. Rarely referenced and barely publicly acknowledged.
However things are slowly, starting to change. Over the weekend a book entitled “The Roll of Honour” was launched in Co Cavan as a tribute to that county’s service men who fought and died in the Great War. The book launch was attended by Minister Alan Shatter and President of the British Legion of the Republic of Ireland, David O’Morchoe.
Locally communities in Co Leitrim have set up their own memorials to those who fought in World War I. In Carrick-on-Shannon a plaque has been erected in St George’s Church listing the names of those who died. Smaller memorials have also been established in graveyards.
Recently Ballinamore man and former teacher Padraig Griffin gave a unique insight into the impact of the First World War on Co Leitrim as well as those who took part in the war and the state of Ireland and Europe in the leadup to the outbreak of hostilities in his lecture for the Carrick-on-Shannon and District Historical Society. Such is the growing interest in this part of our history.
With growing access to the internet more and more families are now researching those ancestors who fought in World War 1, whether that was as part of the forces of their new homelands after emigration or whether they joined and fought from their homes here in Ireland.
Men like Private Patrick Creamer who fought in the Highland Light Infantry 6th Battalion. Patrick died aged just 26 on December 21, 1917. His nearest relative, his mother, is listed as Eliza Creamer, Clooncoo, Mohill. She would not have heard of his death until many weeks later.
Others have not listed the exact location of their birth, men like Private P Duignan, a member of the Connaught Rangers who died on July 9, 1916, but who list links to the county in their records of service.
Other names, so familiar to Leitrim, also crop up in service records, O’Rourke, Kerrigan, Clements, Protestant and Catholic, fighting and in some instances, dying side by side on far distant shores, in France or Turkey. For many it would be their first taste of the world beyond these shores.
In fact there are memorials at many of these battlefields which pay tribute to the Irish soldiers who fought and died. Here there is still a strange discomfort associated with acknowledging the sacrifice of these men. But regardless of whether our communities chose to recognise the service the Irish men provided more and more families are, in their own way, paying tribute to their ancestors. Honouring them as young men killed in the prime of their lives and recognising that any loss of life, in any conflict, is something that should never be forgotten.