An Irishman's Diary

Ah yes, this time of year again; and no, it is not merely a disorder of mine, this interest in the Irish role in two world wars…

Ah yes, this time of year again; and no, it is not merely a disorder of mine, this interest in the Irish role in two world wars. The broader subject continues to fascinate anyway, as recent documentaries on RTE, BBC2 and Channel 4 have shown. In the second of those two encounters, mankind plumbed the depths of depravity even while laying the path to the stars. What Europe, the world, we, might now be like had the Allies lost is unimaginable.

Myles Dungan, Terry Denman, Tom Johnstone have all produced fine books about the Irish in the Great War; the position of the Irish in the second World War is of course entirely different. We were neutral; and Northern Ireland's unionist population was relatively slow to enlist. There were accordingly no Irish divisions, no great massed ranks of Irish troops, and even Irish regiments became increasingly anglicised as the war progressed.

Unrelated narratives

But there is a tale or two to be told of the Irish in the second World War - indeed, perhaps far too many; which is why Richard Doherty's Irish Men and Women in the Second World War (Four Courts Press) is so impressive, stringing together so many unrelated narratives. The Irish were spread far and wide, not just as soldiers but as doctors, seamen, airmen and nurses.


So how many Irish served in the second World War? Richard's survey of British war dead suggests that maybe 2 per cent of all British dead were Irish-born, and that in all, some 120,000 Irishmen served with the British, approximately 55 per cent from "Eire" and 45 per cent from the North. That, of course, still leaves the Irish of Canada, the US, Australia. . .

Two per cent seems a little conservative, but anecdotal evidence which suggests otherwise should always be treated circumspectly. Certainly Major John Howard, the legendary soldier whose airborne unit was the first to land in Normandy, taking Pegasus Bridge, told me that 10 per cent of his unit were Irish - "the best 10 per cent". My friend Sam McAughtry has written of English expectations that soldiers from this country were always "mad" or "wild" and determined to win the VC; maybe John Howard had internalised that "fighting Irish" stereotype.

Terence Otway, who led the assault by paratroops on Merville Battery in Normandy, has said that over 60 per cent of his troops were Irish, a matter about which he, being Irish, was enormously proud.

There was certainly serious competition between the Ulster Rifles and the Paras for recruits from the South. The history of the Ulster Rifles reports that native Irish-speakers serving with the Paras would try to lure young Southerners already with the Ulster Rifles into the red berets. One such Irish Para sergeant even had "IRA" inscribed on his jacket.


The OC of the Ulster's training depot, Lt-Col John Lucy, was a Corkman who had written one of the best accounts of infantry life in the Great War - There's a Devil in the Drum. Commissioned from the ranks, he was still known as "IRA" Lucy because of his strongly nationalistic feelings and he was able to tell the Gaeilgeoiri in Irish to leave his lads alone: pog mo thoin, peutetre?

Paras recruiting with IRA slogans. Dear me. How things do change. And who remembers today that two of the balladeering Clancy brothers flew with RAF Bomber Command?

Many Irish volunteers chose the more pacific duties of war; the Royal Army Medical Corps would have been in dire straits without them. One former major once told me that virtually his entire class of medical students in UCC in 1941 enlisted in the British service upon graduation, and some of the bravest deeds which Richard Doherty writes about concern these extraordinarily fine men; though what follows, I learnt elsewhere.

During the fighting in Normandy, a young Irish doctor was treating a line of critically injured soldiers in a rudimentary field hospital - i.e., stretchers in a field. He was applying a clamp to a severed artery in the leg of a young second lieutenant when he heard shooting. A group of SS men had broken through allied lines, and seeing British wounded, they did what SS normally did in such circumstances, which was to murder them.

As a medic, the Irishman was unarmed. But the injured man he was treating was not. Holding the clamp and stemming the bleeding with one hand, the medic removed the revolver from the subaltern's holster and shot the SS men dead. He then continued about his proper business.

Clergy and nurses

Equally dependent on the Irish was the British chaplains' department - all four of the major denominations were heavily represented by clergy from this country. And many, many Irishwomen served too as nurses - it is probably impossible to find out the number.

Ireland now officially remembers its lost sons of the Great War without embarrassment or shame. It would be no bad thing if people also freely recalled the purely personal and voluntary sacrifice made by many individuals, unsupported by any political campaign and rigorously concealed by the censor - even in their deaths - of those whose fight for freedom helped to give us a free Europe. As the day of the poppy approaches, we should be grateful.