THE LAST couple of years has seen a mushrooming of books relating to WWI, and more specifically, WWI and Ireland. For those interested in learning more about this seismic event, or wondering where to start, Cormac Ó Comhraí’s Ireland and the First World War: A Photographic History is the perfect answer.
Opening the book, there is an immediate tendency to flip through the photographs, but that would do the author and publishers Mercier Press an injustice.
In the introduction, Ó Comhraí, who is from An Spidéal, explores the complex situation in Ireland before during and after the war. The reader becomes immediately aware of the strong narrative voice that the interplay between text and image presents and this continues through to the final page. It is this voice which makes the book such an absorbing read.
The book’s main focus is not on the whys and wherefores of the War and its effects on Ireland - although they are of course present - more the impact on the men who fought in Europe for the British army; those who stayed at home either as pacifists or revolutionaries; and the women and children left behind. Over all these hung the grim shadow of either the dreaded telegram or the executioner’s bullet.
As the reader progresses, s/he becomes more and more absorbed into the ambience and atmosphere and herein is the real success of Ireland and the First World War. We live with the father and mother in University College Galway reading their son’s letter: “Even when things burst over one’s head, one must not duck or jump – the men would see it.” Later that same day they received the telegram informing them of his death.
Ó Comhraí’s ability to highlight the horrors of the war for Ireland, along with its strange, ironic, humanity, is one of the book’s impressive elements. Michael Curley from Athlone joined up when war broke out. He deliberately killed his superior with a grenade but got away with it in the confusion of battle. Curley was unhappy with orders to attack a German position with no hope of success or survival. Shortly after the killing, orders were received to refrain from the attack.
On the lighter side, Thomas Duggan, a Roman Catholic chaplain, was captured by the Germans. When being registered in the camp he described himself as being Irish rather than English. One of the German officers addressed him in Irish and realised that Duggan was unable to answer him, in disgust he put him down as English. On his return Duggan became fluent in his native tongue.
Ireland and the First World War gives an intense sense of how that awful event impacted on so many Irish families of all classes, and indeed of the uncertainty and fear which prevailed over the country during those dark days.