Traitors, Martyrs or Just Brave Men?


More than 15 years ago, I travelled to the Belgian city of Ypres with an Irish friend. She was from a good Fine Gael family which nursed a healthy disrespect for the amount of romantic green blossom draped around Padraig Pearse’s neck for the militarily hopeless but politically explosive Dublin Easter Rising of 1916.

But she displayed an equally admirable suspicion of British or ‘English’ as she would have put it intentions towards Ireland, north and south. Her mother once recalled for me a British military raid on their home in County Carlow:

I was a little girl and one of the soldiers patted me on the head and I told him: ‘You keep your hands off me.’

Ypres in ruins, 1917.

But at Ypres one evening, beneath the great Menin Gate upon which are carved the names of 54,896 First World War British soldiers whose bodies were never found my Irish friend faced a real political challenge. She had noted, among those thousands, the names of hundreds of young Irishmen who had died in British uniform while their countrymen at home were fighting and dying in battle against the same British Army.

She looked at one of the names. ‘Why, in God’s name,’ she asked, ‘was a boy from the Station House, Tralee, dying here in the mud of Flanders?’ And it was at this point that an elderly man approached us and asked my Irish friend to sign the visitors’ book.

She looked at the British Army’s insignia on the memorial volume with distaste. There was the British crown glimmering in the evening light. And the Belgian firemen who nightly play the Last Post beneath the gate were already taking position. There was not much time. But my friend remembered the young man from Tralee. She thought about her own small Catholic nation and its centuries of suffering and she realised that the boy from Tralee had gone to fight or so he thought for little Catholic Belgium.

She decided to inscribe the British Army’s book in the Irish language. Do thiortha beaga, she wrote. ‘For little countries.’

Menin Gate

All this happened years before an economically powerful and self-confident Irish Republic would face up to the sacrifice its pre-independence soldiers made in British uniform the estimated 35,000 Irishmen who died in the 1914-18 War wildly outnumber the few hundred who fought in the Easter Rising. The total of dead, wounded and missing among Irish Protestants in the 36th (Ulster) Division on the Somme and at Ypres came to 32,180. The same statistics among soldiers of the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions most of them Catholics amounted to 37,761.

My own father was to fight alongside the Irish on the Somme in 1918 although a fact I used to keep quiet about when I was The Times‘s correspondent in Belfast in the early 1970s he was originally sent to Ireland in the aftermath of the Rising. I have a faded photograph of Bill Fisk, then in the Cheshire Regiment, kissing the Blarney Stone, and some pictures he took of the front gate of Victoria Barracks now Collins Barracks in Cork, its stonework plastered with appeals to Irishmen to join the British Army and fight for Catholic Belgium and France.

It was only when I was invited to give the annual Bloody Sunday memorial lecture in Derry the first Brit to be asked to honour the memory of the 14 Catholics who were killed by the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment in 1972 that I talked about my Dad’s fight against Sinn Fein (whom he always called the ‘Shinners’). If Padraig Pearse had not raised the flag over the Dublin Post Office in Easter Week of 1916, I told my audience, Bill Fisk might have been sent to die in the first Battle of the Somme three months later and his son Robert would not exist. So, did I owe my life to Pearse?

I can already hear that most polemical, visceral, poignant, absolutely infuriating, brilliant and doggedly insulting Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers bursting into fits of sarcastic laughter and carefully aimed fury at such a remark. Kevin was among the first to hammer away at Ireland’s shameful refusal to acknowledge the vast sacrifice of its sons in the 1914-18 cauldron.

And Kevin it has been, while foolishly taking the Turkish line of denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915, who has repeatedly tried to hack down the reputations of martyrs Pearse and James Connolly and John MacBride and Eamon de Valera, who escaped execution because of his American passport and present the Rising as not only a military disaster but an unnecessary sacrifice of civilian life and the first example of ‘green fascism.’

I don’t like the way the ‘fascist’ label gets stuck on anyone we dislike. Lefties used to call policemen fascists. And now we have ‘Islamo-fascism’ which effectively binds Mussolini to one of the world’s great religions. No wonder we could draw those outrageous cartoons of the Prophet with a bomb in his turban.

But I’m still not at all sure how to regard the men of 1916. The very best book on the Rising George Dangerfield’s magnificent The Damnable Question proves that the ‘rebels’ (as my father called them) were very brave as well as very dismissive of their own and others’ lives. They were not to know the deviant way in which their ‘blood sacrifice’ which was not exactly the first in Irish history would be adopted by later armed groups who sought their mandate in blood shed before those 1916 British execution parties.

Had they not been so cruelly shot down as punishment for their armed assault on British power, would they have been so honoured in the long, dark, stagnant Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s, and then in the terrible and much later years of the civil conflict in Northern Ireland? Do you have to be a martyr to have honour?

I was much struck by this thought five years ago when I was searching through the British National Archives at Kew for details of the execution of a young Australian soldier in the British Army whom my father was ordered to shoot at the end of the First World War. Bill Fisk refused, so another officer performed the dirty deed.

But there in the documents of British military executions routinely filed under ‘1916’ were the names of Pearse and Connolly and McBride. The exemplary punishment accorded to them and their comrades in Dublin turned Irish public scorn to sympathy and admiration. But to the Brits, it was just another act of military law, the shooting by firing squad of traitors to the Crown in just the same way as deserters, army murderers and cowards were shot at dawn behind the trenches of France. The martyrs of the Easter Rising suffered Western Front punishment.

And now Ireland’s Minister for Defence tells us the military Easter Rising pomp in Dublin this weekend symbolises the end of the war in the North. Maybe. But who will remember the boy from the Station House, Tralee?

This article first appeared in The Independent (UK) on 15 April 2006.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.