Thirty percent of those killed during the Easter Rising were members of the British Army or police. Among them was my great grand uncle, William Mulraney. A private with the King’s 8th Hussars and wounded in the war, he returned to recuperate in the Curragh, Co. Kildare until he was dispatched to Dublin to put down the rebellion. On April 26, 1916, he was shot as a British soldier and became one of the Rising’s victims.
Despite what my English birth certificate would lead you to believe, this does not make my family any less Irish, nor does it warrant the neglect of my relative’s memory during next year’s centenary of the Rising. William played GAA with our local club, named after a Fenian and yet his death found him in the right place but in the wrong uniform. His body now lies in Grangegorman military cemetery in Dublin.
Ex-Tory MP Patrick Mercer recently called on Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny to visit the graves of British soldiers killed during the 1916 Easter Rising as part the centenary events.
His call is echoed by the relatives of some of these soldiers who wish for a memorial to those who died on, what some Irish people would most definitely term, the wrong side of the fight.
The Rising centenary is being depicted as an all-inclusive affair where the roles of those overlooked or overshadowed in the 1966 commemoration are again brought to the forefront. Yet negative responses to these calls show that not everybody is ready to accept the role played by the British Army and the role played by Irish citizens in the British Army during this time.
The Easter Rising took place less than two years after John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Home Rule party, made a speech imploring Irish Volunteers to join the British army and “fight as far as the firing line extends” in an attempt to win favor from the British government for the implementation of Home Rule.
Irish involvement in the First World War is something that is frequently brushed under the rug. Conscription was never introduced in Ireland and yet, between 1914 and 1918, 210,000 men enlisted in the British army. Donning a British army uniform doesn’t necessarily make you British and it certainly doesn’t make your life worth any less.
In the early 20th century, my own family had a history of joining the army, mainly stemming from poverty. From a small town on the edge of the Bog of Allen in Co. Kildare, work opportunities were hard to come by and Bill followed his two older brothers in enlisting for a secure wage and the means to support their family. All three brothers died in a British uniform.
Bill, however, was unlucky enough to be given the task of serving with the British Army on his own country’s soil. While, as a nation, we are gradually coming to accept that Irish people fought for the British during WWI, this changes completely when people hear that your ancestors died in 1916. The proclamation of Irish independence and your family were trying to stop it – how are you not ashamed?
Yes, he was technically a British soldier fighting the rebellion at the time of his death, but what makes the life of my relative worth less than that of yours? There are many reasons why Irish Catholics served with the British Army during this time and they were unaware when they signed on as to where they would be stationed or that they would be asked to fight against an Irish rebellion.
I’ve spent countless hours trying to justify to myself, as well as to others, why an Irish man was not completely in the wrong to be wearing a British uniform during Easter 1916. Many times in my life, when I’ve mentioned my family’s involvement and my English birth, “Brit” has been thrown in my face as an insult, and not always in jest.
Subconsciously, I seem to have let certain snide comments affect the decisions I’ve made in life and, in hindsight, many of the causes and hobbies I’m passionate about, such as the future of the Irish language, traditional music and Co. Kildare winning the All-Ireland football final, seem like desperate attempts to assert my Irish identity.
I don’t need to prove that I’m Irish any more than I have to justify my family’s participation in the British Army. My nationality, and his, shouldn’t be undermined by the side that he fought on during the Rising because your own personal national identity runs much deeper than that.
As Stephen Collins said in his Irish Times article last weekend, many of the citizens killed during the Rising did not die for Ireland. For Dublin’s average citizen, the Rising was a disruption to their daily lives, something they hadn’t asked for and something they didn’t all support. They were simply unfortunate enough to live in the city. In comparison, those in the British Army joined because they wanted to do their part for Home Rule. Some even joined for the “justice of the cause,” expecting to fight the largely Protestant German Empire and regain independence for the smaller Catholic state of Belgium. Does that scenario sound familiar?
Setting aside my own family history and looking to other members of the British Army, the burst of patriotism at the start of WW1 sent many British men to the army also – men who were expecting to fight the Germans, not the Irish.
Our past relationship with England is intrinsically more complicated than a battle of good versus evil, which is what the negative reaction to a British Army commemoration sets it out it be. Our past and traditions are greatly intertwined with each other and it’s important to recognize that during the centenary.
Heather Humphreys, the Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, recently wrote a beautiful column for the Irish Times about the importance of inclusion in the 2016 centenary and sums it up simply and eloquently as a commemoration for all. She said, “Given my background as a Protestant and an Ulsterwoman, who is a proud Irish republican, I appreciate the need to respect the differing traditions on this island.”
It’s time we all lived by Humphries words. If we want to truly show how Ireland has moved on from the past and is looking to the future as the progressive, accepting society I know it has the potential to be, then we should be able to remember all lives lost without having to feel ashamed.