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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 December, 2003, 05:01 GMT
Ireland's forgotten fallen

Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

While history remembers Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins, few remember their fellow countrymen who fought and fell in World War I or who were killed while serving in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

World War I battlefield
Tens of thousands of Irishmen fought in World War I

We journalists are fond of saying that we have front-row seats in the theatre of history.

Nearly all of the time, of course, that's just rubbish.

It's something we tell ourselves to compensate for the amount of time we spend ploughing through the minutes of the local council's planning committee.

A photographer I worked with once said: "If this is what history looks like from the front row, then God knows what the view from the back must be like."

So, naturally enough, on those rare occasions when we find ourselves writing about history, we tend to look back into the newspaper archives of the time to find out what sort of first draft our colleagues came up with.

War duty

I spent some time this year writing about the role played by Irish soldiers in the Great War.

Ireland was part of the United Kingdom as well as part of the British Empire in 1914, and in spite of the political unrest of the time, tens of thousands of Irishmen volunteered.

No one talked like this at the time of course, but you can't help noting now how Britain tailored its recruitment advertising to the Irish market.

The volunteers are now a ghostly and forgotten army

There was much talk of "fighting for the rights of small nations".

This implied that you could do that more effectively by joining up in support of "plucky little Belgium" than by staying at home and joining the IRA.

The Irish papers at the time were full first of the exploits of the volunteers, then of the names of the dead and the missing.

They joined the millions of casualties in a war that married the technologies of the 20th Century with the infantry tactics of the 19th.

But the volunteers are now a ghostly and forgotten army.

Selective memory

Irish history concentrates on the small group of rebels who fought against the crown in the Easter Rising of 1916, not on the much larger number fighting for it in British uniform in the same year.

That is natural enough in a way.

Easter Rising
A scene from rare film footage of the 1916 Easter Rising

History is always going to reward winners, and the men and women behind the failed revolt against British rule did eventually turn out to be on the winning side.

In the course of my research though, I came across a book which catalogues police casualties in Ireland between the years 1919 and 1922.

In total, 493 officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were murdered, often when they were alone and defenceless at home, or in tiny isolated rural police posts.

Nearly all were Irish themselves, mainly Catholic and often knew their killers.

This is a period remembered now by Irish history as a war of independence, and it is certainly true that Britain's forces carried out brutal raids and reprisals in response to some of the killings.

Guerrilla war is an ugly business, and the hard edges of that period have only been slightly softened over time by its depiction in endless jaunty rebel songs.

So the book makes grim reading.


You find inside stories like that of William Mulherrin, a 39-year-old married man from Mayo who was killed as he blessed himself inside the porch of his local church at Bandon in County Cork.

His killers had lined up by the roadside where he lay and had each been allowed to strike him once in the head with a rifle butt

His mistake of course was to go to mass in the same church at the same time too often, allowing his killers to get to know his routine.

Grimmer still perhaps, the fate of James Plumb, a member of a police patrol ambushed near Garrison in County Fermanagh.

When his body was recovered afterwards, it was found to have been brutally battered after he died.

It later emerged that his killers had lined up by the roadside where he lay and had each been allowed to strike him once in the head with a rifle butt.

In the newspapers of the period, especially in Britain, that kind of brutality and the suffering of the Royal Irish Constabulary was widely and sympathetically reported.

The republicans, who were their enemies, were demonised.

But successful revolutions create entirely new moral and political climates of their own.

No tribute

The Irish rebellion against Britain, which led to the creation of the Free State in 1922, was no exception.

The republican movement of the time emerged victorious although divided and formed a new government, indeed an entirely new political establishment.

Michael Collins
Michael Collins signed the treaty leading to the creation of the Irish Free State

The RIC was disbanded.

After all, the order in whose service its members had died had collapsed and Britain, the country they'd served, had withdrawn from most of Ireland.

So how does history remember these men, who were heroes to the newspapers of the age?

Well, it doesn't and not just because there is no police equivalents of a rebel song.

There are two small plaques commemorating the force in cathedrals in London, but nothing at all, or at least nothing I have ever seen, in Ireland itself.

Members of the RIC, ignored by the new Ireland and forgotten by England weren't exactly written out of history.

They were simply never written into it.

My point is not to question who was right and who was wrong in that old conflict, whose resonances are still felt every day somewhere in Ireland.

It's more to remind us all that while we may be familiar with how the events of our day look in the media now, we can't know and can't even begin to guess how they will look in the context of history.

What will history make of us all?

Now there's a thought to humble even the most confident of reporters as they settle into those front-row seats.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 27 December at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Timeline: Ireland
16 Jul 03  |  Country profiles


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