OVER 200,000 IRISHMEN served in the First World War. Some fought for the king. Others fought for Irish nationalism, encouraged to volunteer to further the cause of Irish Home Rule.
Many fought to earn a crust. All were volunteers, for conscription never reached Ireland.
They were ordinary people, from ordinary Irish towns and villages who were caught up in the great cataclysm that was to shatter Europe on the first of two occasions during the century. Then, they were largely forgotten after the men of the 1916 Rising changed the scenery forever.
It is only in recent years that we have begun to unearth the memories of the men who went and fought and died and who came home with terrible wounds, physical and mental, that they were forced to bury.
Monument to Marita Ann
Sinn Féin is attempting to turn back the clock on these men. The Irish Times reported this week that a proposal to add the names of 250 men from Tralee who died fighting in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, which had its home base in the town, has been described as “divisive” by Councillor Toiréasa Ferris, daughter of Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris.
Rather than putting the names on a monument erected in the town in 2014, it is proposed that they be displayed in the local library, well out of view.
If the council persisted in the idea of attaching the names of the dead to the monument, proposed Cllr Ferris, then Sinn Féin would propose a monument of its own ship Marita Ann that her father so famously served on in 1984. It is a churlish and pathetic stance from the party.
In the period 1914-1918 the men of the Royal Munster Fusiliers fought pitched battles man-to-man against the German and Turkish armies. They served with distinction, losing 1,000 dead and many more wounded or captured. They fought at Mons, Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele and Gallipoli.
Near the start of the war the 2nd Battalion fought a rear-guard action at Etreux. They held up 6 German battalions, allowing the rest of their division to escape to safety. Of the 800 men who started the day, 223 made it back to Allied lines. The Regiment is the subject of a haunting painting based on a scene later in the war, “The Last General Absolution of the Munster’s at Rue du Bois”, which features the men receiving absolution prior to a battle from which only 200 would return.
The Marita Ann trawler was intercepted off the Kerry coast by the Naval Service in September 1984, where seven tonnes of arms were seized on board. The munitions aboard the Ann were supplied by Whitey Bulger, the organised crime boss currently serving two life terms for, among other things, 19 murders. Martin Ferris, the Sinn Féin TD, served ten years for his role in the Marita Ann operation. He is also the man who famously met the PIRA killers of Detective Garda Gerry McCabe when they were released from prison. You might recall one of those two men, Pearse McAuley, was in the news recently following his conviction for stabbing his estranged wife multiple times in front
of their children.
The need to honour equally the struggles of the PIRA and the Irishmen who died in the First World War is as laughable as it is sickening.
There is no comparison, nor should there be. The PIRA campaign in Northern Ireland, should not be linked to the War of Independence.
The party has scheduled its Ard Fheis so that Gerry Adams can deliver a televised speech on the eve of the 1916 commemorations. As Sinn Féin so often does, they will move seamlessly from lionising the men who proclaimed the Irish Republic to the edited history of the Provisional IRA campaign.
Such things, as Gerry Adams tells us, happen in war.
You remember all those widows murdered in cold blood by the volunteers of 1916? Or by the men going over the top at the Somme?
Me neither. But Sinn Féin wants all these men and women to stand shoulder to shoulder at the same level of national reverence, with monuments and days of commemoration.
They do not stand together. It is commendable that Sinn Féin is now a part of the democratic process, even if independent reports point out that the party is still directed by the PIRA Army Council. But there is a wide gulf between accepting them into the peaceful fold of Irish politics and allowing them free reign to lionise and commemorate such actions.
This year we will remember the men and women of 1916, and is right and proper that we also remember the hundreds of thousands who fought in the Great War. We cannot allow Sinn Féin to sully the memories of any of these people, casting their names to dusty libraries or seeking to elevate their own dubious heroes to the same status in our consciousness.
The dead of the Great War deserve their names on monuments in every town from which they came. So, too, the innocent victims of the Provisional IRA. The people who assembled the bombs and delivered them? Not so much.
Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.