In this centennial year of 1916, it has been interesting to note the extreme and factually flawed measures of some revisionist in their desperate attempts to undermine the courage and cause of the men and women of the revolutionary generation. One such example is the rewriting of WW I, which heretofore had usually been considered one of the greatest follies of mankind, into a noble crusade in an effort to reduce the Easter Rising to but a footnote in the period 1914-1918. All through the Easter Rising Commemorations we saw calls to remember that Irishmen were fighting in the British Army and that in a spirit of “inclusivity” we should equally celebrate the centenary of the battle of the Somme on the Western Front on July 1. That the acts of brave men should be remembered is beyond dispute, however those who point to the Irish service in the British Army as an example of inclusivity are obviously unaware of the sad history of the 16th Irish Regiment.
In the months prior to the outbreak of WW I, Britain was on the brink of civil war. Despite the fact that a Home Rule bill that granted some autonomy to the Irish people to rule their own county had been legislatively passed, the British Government had turned a self-serving blind eye to the formation and arming of a unionist militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), whose avowed aim was to resist with violence any effort to enforce the legally enacted law of the land. They were aided in this treachery by the British Army which made it clear at an incident now called the “Curragh Mutiny” that they would not enforce the law of the land when it came to unionists, though for centuries they never had such qualms when it came to that duty when it impacted the Irish people. In response to the UVF, the Irish Volunteers were formed. The crisis was reaching a boiling point, a dangerous game of poker where all involved were afraid the other parties would call their bluff when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo leading to the outbreak of WW I. All parties took the “opportunity” afforded by the crisis as a face saving escape. The Home Rule Bill was passed and suspended for the duration of the hostilities.
Not surprisingly given the strong support they received from the Army, the UVF offered its services to the British Army and became the 36th (Ulster) [sic] Division. The division required all recruits to sign the Solemn League and Covenant that pledged opposition to Home Rule in Ulster. The 36th made no apologies for their strong connections with the anti-Catholic Orange Order. The British Military establishment had no qualms in allowing its members their own distinct badges and it has been recorded that some even wore their Orange Sashes in battle. Not since Cromwell’s Ironsides had a British Military unit had such an overt political agenda, an agenda that was not questioned by Britain at the time or by revisionist today.
John Redmond, as the leader of the Home Rule advocating Irish Parliamentary Party, was quick to follow suit to similarly offer up the Irish Volunteers for service in the war. In naïve idealism, Redmond believed this would be viewed by the British establishment as a sign of good faith that a Home Rule Ireland could be trusted. Events would soon show how unrealistic this belief was as documented by future British Prime Minister David Lloyd George
“(Minister of War Lord Kitchner) refused commissions to educated young Irishmen of the class and type who were being made officers in England, Scotland and Wales, for no conceivable reason except that he distrusted and disliked their nationalism. The culminating incident will take an invidiously prominent place in the tragic history of Irish relations with Great Britain. Nationalist ladies, fired with enthusiasm for the new Irish Division, for Mr. Redmond and for the cause to which they were devoting themselves, embroidered a silken flag with the Irish harp emblazoned upon it. At the same time the patriotic ladies of Ulster were embroidering the Red Hand of Ulster on the flag which they designed to present to a division which was being raised in Ulster. In due course the two flags were presented to the respective divisions. One was taken and the other left. When Lord Kitchener heard of the green flag and its Irish harp he ordered that it should be taken away. But the Ulster flag was allowed to wave gloriously over the heads of the Orange soldiers of the Protestant north. Ireland was deeply hurt. Her pride was cut to the quick, her sense of fair play was outraged, her sympathy with the Holy War against the military dictatorship of Europe was killed, and John Redmond’s heart was broken. ….. From that moment the effort of Irish Nationalism to reconcile England and Ireland by uniting the two peoples in a common effort for the oppressed of another land failed, and Lord Kitchener’s sinister order constituted the first word in a new chapter of Irish history.”
This is again another incident that revisionist conveniently leave out when making their case that the 1916 Rising was unnecessary, “that all would have worked out after the war”. The refusal to accept the flag of the Irish 16th Division was a “red flag” indicating that the imperialist attitudes of Britain were not changed, even as thousands of young Irishmen offered their service in good faith. While the Army worried that an Irish Division officered by Irish men may contribute to a future civil war, they had no qualms of empowering the Unionist of Ulster who had credibly threatened just such a war should the law of the land be enforced. The fact that young Irishmen were denied commissions to lead their fellow Irishmen is nothing but a continuation of the prejudices that stretch back to the Statutes of Kilkenny. It is another example of the duplicity and hypocrisy that was the hallmark of British policy; even when asking Irishmen to contribution to the ‘Great Fight for Civilization’ as they termed the folly of WW I, the British establishment could not acknowledge in even the smallest detail Irish autonomy. Sadly the hypocrisy continues when we see the motives of brave men and women who fought for universal suffrage, civil rights and the right for Irish men and women to control Irish destinies ridiculed yet extoll without question a battle that sacrificed a million lives for noting more than six miles of bloody trench line in a war that asserted nothing.
Yes, let us remember brave men who fought were their lights led them, but let there be no mistake when talking of the Rising or WW I as to which was the nobler cause.