Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in April/May 2014 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Some older readers will recall visible reminders of Ballinasloe’s involvement in the First World War: the British Legion Clubhouse on the Fair Green, disabled veterans selling poppies on the streets on Armistice Day. Many townsmen had enlisted for active service in the various theatres of war and at least a hundred paid with their lives.
The fact that there is no local war memorial speaks volumes for the subsequent development of public attitudes to both the fallen and the survivors of the conflict. Put bluntly, they came to be regarded in some quarters as traitors and indeed during the War of Independence ex-servicemen were targeted for assassination in certain parts of the country. How did this situation come about and what substance if any is there in the charge of treason that had been levelled against them? In this centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War it seems appropriate for us to ask those questions. To be a traitor is to betray one’s country by going over to the enemy, a deliberate act of perfidy. In 1914 the overwhelming majority in Nationalist Ireland had no quarrel with the neighbouring island. Rather, their opponents were the Ulster Unionists who were blocking the implementation of the Home Rule Bill and were supported in their intransigence by a threatened mutiny of army officers. Civil war between North and South seemed imminent and was only averted by the pistol shots in Sarajevo that ignited the European conflagration. Home rule was suspended for the duration of the war and John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in an attempt at national reconciliation, offered the services of the Irish Volunteers to the Allied cause. Some from the ranks dutifully answered the call to arms, while a small minority broke away to form what would eventually become known as the Irish Republican Army. In a blatant exploitation of the rampant sectarianism of the time, British propaganda aimed at Nationalist Ireland represented Germany as a Protestant country whose brutal soldiery had perpetrated unspeakable atrocities in Catholic Belgium involving priests and nuns as well as other members of the civilian population. Army recruiting posters featured the traditional accoutrements of stage-Irish: wolfhounds, shawl-clad colleens, round towers, ruined abbeys, harps and shamrocks. Potential recruits were assured that the war would be a short one, with everyone home in time to celebrate Christmas with their families. Though farmers had been told that a German victory would entail the confiscation of their holdings, members of the agricultural community were decidedly unenthusiastic about flocking to the colours. Wartime prices for produce were at a record high, all available labour was required to work the land and a son returning from the front minus an arm or leg would be of little use about the farm. In the towns and cities recruits were forthcoming from all classes but mostly from the underprivileged section of the community where a tradition of military service existed. Joining up was a socially acceptable thing to do, as well as being financially attractive, especially to married men whose wives and children were paid a Separation allowance enabling them to live in frugal comfort. Popular attitudes to the war were to change in the course of time. Hostilities seemed to drag on interminably, casualty figures continued to mount, the Easter Rising intervened and an abortive attempt was made to introduce conscription in the final year of the struggle. Initially, though, it is true to say that the great mass of the Nationalist Ireland was solidly behind the war effort. The shift in public opinion that culminated in the 1918 electoral victory of Sinn Féin brought forward the notion that there was something shameful if not downright criminal in having at any time in the past served in the British Armed forces, an idea that was reinforced when the I.R.A. found itself in conflict with these same forces during the War of Independence. Thus, veterans returning home found themselves stigmatized or worse for having done what their own clergymen and political leaders had urged them to do a few short years before. In the circumstances it’s hardly surprising that half the demobbed Irish soldiers chose to remain abroad. Happily in recent decades Irish society has shown a greater readiness to embrace the totality of our past, an evolution largely to the credit of Presidents Robinson and McAleese. The men from Ballinasloe who laid down their lives in the Great War may not have all been saints or heroes, but they fought on the side that historians tell us could lay claim to the greater measure of right and we have no reason to disown them. The least we can do is to pay them the tribute of our understanding.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved and now we lie
In Flanders fields, in Flanders fields.