Irish Stew in the Name of the Law
I’ve just come across something I wrote for a website called Lost Generation which I commissioned here at Channel 4 in 2005 in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum/National Inventory of War Memorials. I’d just read Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way and felt inspired to dig a bit deeper into that neglected and murky area of WWI history. I’m bunging it here for my archives (i.e. so I don’t lose it again).
Irish Stew in the Name of the Law
Ninety years on and the chickens are coming home to roost. Except they weren’t chickens. They were shell-shocked. They were mentally ill. They were country lads completely out of their depth. At the end of 2004 a report commissioned by the Irish government was handed over to its British counterpart. In it was revealed damning evidence of the anti-Irish racism and fundamental injustice of British ‘field general courts martial’ during the First World War. These were military courts in the proximity of the front line speedily dispensing exemplary ‘justice’ including death sentences.
The report contains a close examination of the cases of 26 Irish soldiers executed by firing squad. It asserts that, based on the evidence in the surviving files (the team had access to all but one), all the cases could have been successfully appealed had a normal set of legal standards been applied, including the need for sufficient proof and the proper consideration of medical evidence. The courts martial files were kept secret for 75 years by the British authorities, only being released in 1990.
If you were Irish, whether Protestant or Catholic, Ulsterman or Dubliner, whether fighting out of loyalty to the Union or for the promise of Home Rule, you were five times more likely to be shot by firing squad. In the rest of the British army one in every 3,000 troops was sentenced to execution in this way. Among the Irish soldiers the figure is one in less than 600.
Making an Example
The report makes a revealing comparison between the Irish and the New Zealand regiments, which were known for their harsh discipline. The recruitment figures for both countries were similar and yet there were ten times as many death sentences in the Irish regiments.
The indications of the 26 cases of execution – 23 for desertion, one for disobedience, one for quitting his post and one for striking an officer – are that death sentences were imposed as a form of exemplary discipline. The report describes the behaviour towards the Irish involved in these cases as “capricious”, “inconsistent” and “shocking”. It also condemns subsequent attempts by the British Ministry of Defence to justify this military justice in the field as “fundamentally flawed”.
In eleven of the cases the death sentence was clearly linked to bad discipline in the units and a perceived need to set an example. The report concludes: “Soldiers were effectively condemned to be shot because of both the behaviour of others and the opinion of others as to their fighting potential. … Executing a soldier simply to deter their colleagues from contemplating a similar crime, or because their attitude in the face of the gravest of dangers was not what was expected – in some cases after only a matter of weeks of basic training – must be seen as unjust, and not deserving of the ultimate penalty.”
Not the whole truth
Of the 26 cases, the legal papers showed that presiding officers failed to consider medical evidence in almost half of them. Four cases involved significant extenuating circumstances. The report says: “In a number of cases there is clear evidence of ignoring medical conditions and personal circumstances that may have accounted for the actions of the accused and could have been interpreted as mitigating factors.”
Private Joseph Carey from Dublin served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers (who fought at the Somme) until his execution in September 1916. He was charged with desertion after going missing for a day. Clemency was recommended on the grounds of defective intelligence. It was drawn to the attention of the court that he had mental health issues in the wake of his father’s and brother’s suicides. The report singles this out as “a particularly shocking case” as Private Carey had been on the receiving end of an extremely heavy bombardment which added shellshock to his burden of mental illness. The clemency recommendation was ignored and he was shot evidently as a disciplinary example.
Private George Hanna served in the same regiment as Carey but hailed from Belfast. He was executed in November 1917. At his court martial for desertion it came to light he had not been home on leave for three years. During that time he had lost three brothers in the war. He was trying to get back to Belfast after having received news of his sister’s illness. The report concludes grimly that there was nothing to indicate that the military authorities “thought twice about taking a fourth son from the family”.
The report also highlighted a distinct class bias which it sees as “incompatible with an impartial system of justice”.
The Fighting Irish
The upshot of the report is a call for full pardons for the men to “grant them the dignity in death they were denied in life”. There is no demand for compensation payment attached to this call.
“We continue to press the British government to restore the good names of these men,” said Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister. “Nothing less will do the Irish government and their families.” He summed up the report as “very tragic reading” and confirmed “no-one could not be moved by the simple stories of brave, often poorly educated young men who were shot after perfunctory courts martial. The Irish government believes this was wrong. These Irish people died needlessly.”
There is now a campaign for the pardons co-ordinated by Peter Mulvany – the Shot at Dawn Campaign. It was launched in 2002 in Dublin and has support from various TDs (Teachta Dála – members of the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann), MPs and politicians across the spectrum from Rev. Ian Paisley to John Hume, as well as church leaders both Catholic and Protestant. You can find out more about the campaign here <link to Shot at Dawn Campaign http://www.irishseamensrelativesassociation.org/SADIRL.htm >
The tragic experiences of Irish soldiers in the British army during the First World War have been brought to the attention of the British public recently by the short-listing of Sebastian Barry’s moving novel ‘A Long Long Way’ for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. It tells the story of a Dubliner who volunteers but finds himself, as the war goes on, in an increasingly incomprehensible position, ultimately belonging nowhere. At one point, just weeks before the Somme, he finds himself in his British uniform firing on his fellow Dubliners as the Easter Rising erupts and the Republic of Ireland is born.
Get Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way <link>
Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers – Terence Denman (Irish Academic Press, 1992)
A Lonely Grave – Terence Denman (Irish Academic Press, 1995)
Irish Men or English Soldiers – Thomas Dooley (Liverpool University Press, 1995)
Irish Voices from the Great War – Miles Dungan (Irish Academic Press, 1995)
They Shall Grow Not Old – Miles Dungan (Four Courts Press, 1997)
Far from the Short Grass – James Durney (publisher James Durney, 1999)
Ireland and the Great War – ed. Adrian Gregory & Senia Paseta (Manchester University Press, 2002)
Dividing Ireland – Thomas Hennessey (Routledge, 1998)
Ireland and the Great War – Keith Jeffrey (Cambridge, 2000)
Orange, Green and Khaki – Tom Johnstone(Gill & Macmillan, 1992)