One hundred years ago as Home Rule expectations were rising, and Dublin was still in the throes of the Lockout, few were fully aware of the horrendous storm that was brewing in Europe.
It was a storm that would eventually leave an indelible mark on Ireland’s soul, one that would eventually lead to a radicalisation of Irish people, culminating in the War of Independence.
However, it is Tipperary’s role in the Great War that is the focus of In a Time of War, Tipperary 1914-1918, a major work by Clonmel author and journalist John Dennehy, giving a fantastic insight into life in the county throughout the war, stories of those who volunteered, those who remained behind to help the war effort and the profound military, political and social impact of the war on Tipperary.
The book has its foundation in a PhD thesis the author did while at UCC, and he explains: “I decided to focus on Tipperary because there is a lot of stuff that wasn’t really written about, and I’m also from the county as well. I knew that there was a story to be told in terms of the experience the county experienced.”
And while Tipperary provided its fair share of recruits, exact figures for the numbers from the county enlisting is tough to quantify, he says. “There is no exact record kept of how many enlisted. But if we just keep it from 1914 to 1918 and from those who were in the Reserve and those who enlisted during those years, I would put an approximate figure of about 3,500,” says John.
Roughly 25 per cent of those that enlisted became casualities, about 700. However, that may be more if you include some who may have been working abroad and enlisted or second or third generation Irish. One of the best sources for finding out who served, and who were honoured for their heroism are the local newspapers, which carried reports every week of Tipperary people being decorated. And they came from all over the county. Take, for example, James O’Brien from Cashel, who was a driver and saved a field gun during the retreat from Mons from falling into German hands. For his actions he received the French Legion of Honour. O’Brien later died from wounds he received at Ligny, but before his death he had written to his mother: “I have done my duty”.
But it wasn’t just ordinary Irishmen who lost their lives. On Christmas Eve, 1915, Lord Dunalley and his wife received a telegram saying their son, Capt Reginald Prittie of the Rifle Brigade, had been killed just weeks after he, too, had received the Legion of Honour.
However, as John points out, recruits generally came from urban unskilled workers, with a portion from the gentry.
“The middle class by and large didn’t respond. Farmers’ sons, commercial classes, shop assistants didn’t really engage,” he says.
As well as impacting on ordinary life, the conflict had its political fallout, and, John says, the main argument running through the book is that legacy was one of radicalisation.
“Tipperary emerged completely different in 1919. This I would put down to the war, primarily because of the conscription crisis. In 1918 when the British authorities tried to impose conscription there was a huge surge in opposition to this. Sinn Fein, the Church, the Irish Parliamentary Party all formed one united front. It paved the way for the 1918 general election and Sinn Fein’s supremacy,” he says.
John does not deal with what happened to the soldiers who returned to Ireland, but says: “Some suffered financial difficulties, some were discriminated against, others suffered mental problems. Others came back and tried to rebuild their shattered lives as best they could.”
In a Time of War is available from www.iap.ie Paperback available from €18.95, with 10 per cent discount for a limited period.