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International Affairs - Irish Politics - UK Politics

Remembering Willy McDowell and the futility of the so-called Great War

On the day that’s in it, much will be written about the futility of the so-called Great War, and the struggle between the great European imperial powers to survive and dominate each other.  Much also will be written about the senseless slaughter of those who joined the colours, particularly here in Ireland and lost their lives in the mud of Flanders and the baking heat of Gallipoli.  And of course it would be totally wrong of this generation on the centenary of Armistice Day not to remember and honour those Irish men, Green and Orange, who never came home or who came home injured in mind and limb to a rapidly changing Ireland.

It seems strange that within six weeks of Armistice Day, the course of Irish history was totally changed by the result of the 1918 General Election, an entirely peaceful affair.  It is, perhaps, stranger still that a few weeks later the Sinn Fein MPs elected to Westminster (or as many of them that were at liberty) met in the Mansion House to constitute themselves the duly elected parliament of an Irish republic.  Curiously that Dáil described the Irish republic as Saorstát Éireann rather than Poblacht na hÉireann, the name adopted by the draftsmen of the 1916 Proclamation. 

Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, had at the beginning of 1918 promulgated his plan for a post-war world.  That plan included recognition of the right of the European nations to self-determination, a cause of great hope for those who believed that an independent Irish state might peaceably emerge from the defeat of Germany. 

Of course, as readers of the late Ronan Fanning’s “Fatal Path” will know, the Tories in England were in no humour to concede Irish independence.  Their offer of home rule, which was radically different from the outcome of the Treaty negotiations, was predicated on there being two Irish local and subordinate parliaments – one for the 26 counties and one for the 6 counties.

In the same few weeks after Armistice Day 1918, a group of Irish Volunteers, now members of the Irish Republican Army, planned secretly to ambush RIC men escorting a delivery of explosives from a  barracks to a quarry in County Tipperary. 

Dan Breen, Seán Treacy, and Seán Hogan carried out that ambush at Soloheadbeg in early January 1919, believing that they were acting on behalf of the newly declared independent Irish republic.  In the event, they shot and killed two RIC men (although they expected that the escort party would be six strong).

And thus commenced the War of Independence which would lead to the Truce, the Treaty, the establishment of Saorstát Éireann, an independent Irish state within the Commonwealth having the same status as that of Canada, and ultimately to the fully independent Irish Republic.

On Armistice Day 1918, the British Empire regarded itself, with some justification, as a victor of the Great War.  But, as we now know, the outcome of the Great War was that the Empire had “won the battle but lost the war” for its own survival. Its decline and fall had started.

It is also clear that the Great War played a critical role in the success of the movement for Irish national self-determination. 

The British Government’s insistence on conscription in Ireland produced the perfect tinderbox for violent revolution.  National revulsion against conscription electrified the Irish people and drove the Catholic Church in Ireland into an alliance with the separatist movement which would have been unthinkable five years earlier. 

John Redmond’s vision of a Home Rule Ireland that would have been a vigorous proponent of the British Empire at home and abroad came crashing down when it appeared that his party had, in effect, conceded the principle of military conscription. 

Among my own sons’ eight great-grandparents, three were to serve terms of imprisonment in the aftermath of 1916 and two women  were to play roles in the emerging Cumann na mBan.  Another of their great-grandparents was to have his home and business in Cahirciveen dynamited by Crown forces in 1920 as an official reprisal for the shooting of RIC men by the local IRA. They were the separatists.

The remaining man among those eight, John McDowell, a Dublin solicitor, was a staunch Redmondite, very close to the IPP leaders, Redmond and Dillon. 

In his household, two of my father’s first cousins were raised having been orphaned around the turn of the century.  One of them was Kay McDowell, who was destined to become a leading woman’s trade union activist and secretary general of the Women’s Workers’ Union of Ireland.  She was an active member and candidate for the Labour Party. She is remembered in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Her brother Willy, on the other hand, had enlisted as soon as he turned 18 in the 7th Battalion of the Leinster Regiment, and had gone to the front as a private soldier. 

Among our family papers is a small series of letters home giving his account of life in the trenches and asked for news including  whether the reconstruction of Dublin city centre had yet started in the wake of the Easter Rising. 

On the 9th of September 1916, Willy’s guardian and my grandfather, John McDowell, wrote his nephew an affectionate letter wishing him well and sending him home news. 

That letter was returned, its envelope marked “killed in action”.  It transpired that on the day my grandfather wrote to him, Willy’s battalion had been cut to pieces in one of the grimmest slaughters of the Somme offences, mown down in an advance on Guillemont, near Ginchy.  The regimental history describes the scene in terms, even with the passage of 100 years, almost unbearable to read.

Willy, as his company sergeant related to my uncle by a letter replying to an inquiry as to how he had met his death, was “shot through the heart” and “suffered no pain”. 

These well-intentioned, consoling, if formulaic and clearly fictional, words belied the savage carnage in which his last moments were spent.  His dismembered body, in fact, was never recovered and his name, on that account, is carved only on the sides of the Thiepval Arch at the Somme.Forgive me if I use this column to give Willy some slight degree of personal remembrance and public honour today. 

In years to come he, like the two RIC men killed at Soloheadbeg, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, will be forgotten while many of those who participated in the entirely justified  armed struggle for Irish independence will still be commemorated by the historians.


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