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A recent book about how the First World War affected the county of Tipperary, and by extension all of Ireland, throws a sharp light on a huge national experience which was subsequently and falsely forgotten in our history. Below is my book review in the Sunday Independent of ‘In a Time of War, Tipperary 1914-1918’ by John Dennehy, published by Merrion/Irish Academic Press (priced €17.05)

We are now in the run-up to the centenary of the great events that shaped this country and our neighbouring island. Next year is the centenary of the start of the First World War and yet the Irish focus will be much more on the Easter Rising of two years later, presenting it as a huge national event in which the majority of the population participated.

But, of course, it wasn’t. It was very much a sudden revolt created by a small minority and done while the mass of the Irish people was focussed on the great European war, in which thousands of Irishmen were serving. You only have to go to the excellent military display in the National Museum in Collins Barracks in Dublin to see evidence of this. A slide show displays the casualties of the few days of the Easter Rising – next to the very many more Irish men killed during those very days on the Western Front. The contrast is truly staggering. And, to think, that this European sacrifice was to go on for a further two years.

Many of these soldiers were also nationalists fighting in the great European conflagration which they thought would bring political independence to their land. But they were disgracefully airbrushed out of the official history afterwards, although in recent decades there has been a large and growing attempt to have history properly and fully told and their involvement recognised. Respecting the romance of 1916 doesn’t preclude a respect for the sacrifice of the First World War.

The war had a huge effect on Europe but also on Ireland, and yet in historical terms, its aftershock has been overlooked in the focus on the effects of the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. This excellent book seeks to restore that perspective and is studiously fair in assessing all the elements. It also gives us a valuable, close-up look by focussing on the effect of the war on just one county, Tipperary.

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Of course, Tipperary is not just any Irish county. Tipperary was a so-called garrison county, which had a long tradition of military association with the empire and its exciting and gruelling overseas campaigns. The author, Clonmel native John Dennehy, has done tremendous research, in archives, letters and newspapers, and brings alive the sense of excitement of the war’s beginning, with enlistment and a sudden economic boom, to gradual disillusionment and on to the trauma and misery of the war’s real effects, as casualties and appalling injuries mount.

He has assembled fascinating anecdotes and details, such as the tension between local Protestant gentry who rightly suspected the (nationalist) motives of many of the Redmondite volunteers. Indeed, seeing the many Protestant and Anglo-Irish names invoked here is to realise how diminished such a tradition has become in the life of our country. But Dennehy’s focus is on the broader society, and the war’s effect in terms of everything from food prices, recruitment, soldier suicides, foreign refugees and the role of women. The latter is especially important and had a major positive effect in the subsequent advance of women’s rights (women got the vote in 1918).

Dennehy also examines the hugely controversial attempt to impose conscription on the country, which alienated public opinion and contributed to the major change heralded by the 1918 general election, which Sinn Fein won by a landslide and which heralded the way for political independence and major political unrest. This “took the good” out of the early willing, and even enthusiastic, participation in the European war effort and further polarised opinion between North and South. By the time Ireland’s actual legislative independence came in 1922, the Republican historical narrative was dominant. 1916 was the ‘annus mirabilis’, and the actual full involvement of the country in the First World War was discreetly overlooked.

A similar false erasure was undertaken of the Irish constitutional nationalist or Parnellite tradition. Soon, the First World War was marked by just a few memorials in Protestant churches and the occasional Poppy Day which was aggressively dismissed.

The eruption of the Northern Ireland conflict in 1969 added to the tension and deliberate amnesia, and it is only in recent years, with a peaceful settlement in the North and a more harmonious phase in the UK/Irish relationship that we can look maturely at the Irish experience of the First World War. Valuable and engrossing books like this are helping to bring that rich heritage and history to life, as well as giving us a local window on one of the great events of the modern world.

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