Irish heroes in Britain's wars
Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross
By Richard Doherty and David Truesdale
Four Courts Press, Dublin
On first sight, this is a rather engaging book; the unabashed enthusiasm of the authors for their chosen field has a certain charm about it, even in the face of the profound ideological reservations one may feel about the historical and political context of the subject matter.
It also, knowingly or otherwise, speaks to some current issues, such as the legitimacy of commemoration, the confused attitudes of the English towards the Irish, and ideas of national identity. It opens with the intriguing - and, for the purposes of this book, essential - question: ``What is an Irishman?'' Doherty and Truesdale's definition is, it seems to me, a rather sensible and inclusive one - that is, anyone born in Ireland or elsewhere of at least one Irish-born parent is Irish, as are those born and raised in Ireland of non-Irish parents but who nevertheless consider themselves to be Irish. They also acknowledge that subsequent generations may also legitimately consider themselves to be Irish. What those who are born in Ireland but who consider themselves to be British, or indeed those who suffer from the intellectual curse of defining national identity strictly in terms of religion, will make of this is another matter, but the authors having made their case wisely refuse to get bogged down in the debate.
Using their definition of Irishness, Doherty and Truesdale have established that 207 of the 1,351 VC winners were Irish, some 16% of the total. This figure is put into perspective when set against the fact that historically Irish men have at any one time constituted around 1% of Britain's armed forces.
The material is thoughtfully organised so that what is essentially a long list of VC citations actually becomes a coherent, and much more readable, narrative of each of the British Wars from the Crimean to the Second World War and the role of the individual within it. And there are undoubtedly some fascinating individual accounts. Martin Doyle of the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, for example, won his VC during the First World War for single-handedly knocking out a German machine-gun post and capturing three of its crew. He returned to a hero's welcome in New Ross, County Wexford, in 1919 and almost immediately joined the IRA, using his previous military position to act as an intelligence officer, for which he was also ultimately decorated by the Irish Government.
Doherty and Truesdale discuss in some detail the origins of the Victoria Cross, instituted in 1856 and cast from the iron of a cannon captured from the Russians at Sevastopol during the Crimean War, but this is where the endeavour begins to become a little unstuck. They make much of the fact that it is awarded regardless of ``class, creed or political belief'', but at the same time appear to either remain blissfully unaware or be determined to ignore the little paradox that lies at the rotten heart of the entire enterprise.
The supposedly egalitarian VC was awarded within an imperial system of conquest, domination and defence of an empire. It was created when British colonial power was at its most brutal and exploitative and the `Valour' on the inscription was defined in terms of how well its recipient's action had served the purposes of the British state and monarch. Further, no acknowledgement is made of the appalling economic conditions which compelled so many Irish men to join the British forces. The empire kept many of them so desperately impoverished that they had little choice but to go and perform their heroic deeds in pursuit of the grand imperial project, part of which was a determination to keep their island, their Ireland, subjugated.
BY FERN LANE