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Divided Loyalties: Remembering World War I and the Irish Rising

Ireland and Irish-Americans Divided by War, 1916 Easter Rising

Fiona Byrne of the Living Legacies project talks about Cyril Mack Photo by Tory Germann
Fiona Byrne, history engagement officer for the "Living Legacies: 1914-1918" project at Queens University Belfast, talks about the exhibit and Cyril Mack.

By Katharine Webster

Cyril Mack was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers in January 1916 to fight as part of the British Army in World War I.

As soon as he finished training, Mack was instead sent to Dublin to help put down the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish rebels took over key city buildings in the fight for independence from British rule.

“He was so confused: He was told the enemy was the Germans and he was going to fight the Germans,” said Fiona Byrne, historical engagement officer for the Living Legacies 1914-1918 Engagement Centre at Queens University Belfast in Northern Ireland. “He spoke of the trauma of having to fight his own countrymen.”

Mack was just one of many Irish soldiers whose loyalties and families were divided by the Great War and the Easter rebellion, according to Byrne and other speakers at a conference on “Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme and Impact on Lowell.” 

The conference was hosted by the university’s Center for Irish Partnerships and featured scholars and community historians from Queen’s University Belfast, National Museums Northern Ireland, the Cork Folklore Project, Living Legacies 1914-18 and the university. 

The center has partnerships with universities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, and together they cooperate on archaeological digs, conferences and faculty and student exchanges. The center’s first international historical conference in 2014 examined the Irish legacy in Massachusetts; this one explored the complicated relationship the Irish had to Britain during World War I, as well as Irish-Americans’ reactions to the Easter Rising, especially here in Lowell.
Thomas O'Mahony of the Cork Folklore Project listens to another speaker at "Remembering 1916" conference Photo by Tory Germann
Thomas O'Mahony of the Cork Folklore Project listens to another speaker at "Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, Battle of the Somme and Impact on Lowell."

Irish troops made up about 40 percent of British forces during the war and suffered heavy losses, most notoriously at the Battle of the Somme, but also on numerous other battlefields from Salonika, Greece, to the Belgian Congo.

“We left bleached bones in every part of the empire,” said Thomas O’Mahony, a community historian with the Cork Folklore Project.

O’Mahony said many young Irishmen joined the British Army more because of poverty than loyalty to the British crown. Others – the rebels –slipped away by night to fight against British forces in France. When a rebel boat was due to sail under cover of darkness, volunteers were alerted by coded songs and phrases such as, “It’s great weather, isn’t it? The wild geese will fly tonight.”

New archaeological excavations may help debunk one common belief, though: that the massive losses suffered by Irish divisions in the war occurred because the British failed to train them properly, said Heather Montgomery, a post-graduate researcher at Queens University Belfast.

Montgomery studied five World War I training camps in Ireland, using sources ranging from personal narratives and diaries to aerial mapping, remote sensing, ground surveys and digs. She found elaborate networks of trenches and emplacements, including a unique set of “muster trenches” for soldiers being readied for the front lines – a feature not discovered at any other training camp in England or Ireland, she said.
People look at posters at the "Remembering 1916" conference Photo by Tory Germann
People looked at posters depicting news headlines and photos from the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

“These digs demonstrate that military training in Ireland was extensive and progressive,” she said. “It was remarkable, the degree to which they tried to recreate the reality of trench warfare.”

Other scholars talked about changing public opinions of the rebels. Many Irish and Irish-Americans opposed the Easter Rising at first, either because of its timing – during the war – or because of the lives lost and the massive destruction to Dublin. But public opinion turned fiercely against the British after they arrested the rebel leaders, secretly court-martialed them and began executing them by firing squad, Byrne said.

That was especially true in northern U.S. cities like Lowell, where nearly one-third of the population was of Irish descent. A prominent Lowell citizen, Joseph Smith, urged the cause of the rebels at “indignation meetings” in Lowell and Boston and raised thousands of dollars in rebuilding funds for Dubliners who had lost their homes and livelihoods, said University Prof. Robert Forrant of the History Department

When Smith tried to deliver an estimated $100,000 to Dublin, he was detained by British authorities in Liverpool to prevent him from crossing the Irish Sea, causing an international incident, Forrant said.

When the war was over, Sinn Fein won the majority of Irish seats in the British Parliament, but instead declared a free Irish republic and formed a provisional government. When its president, Eamon de Valera – a leader of the Easter Rising who had escaped execution – toured the United States to rally support for independence in 1919, he packed Fenway Park for the very first time, drawing three times the crowd that had watched Babe Ruth and the Red Sox win the World Series a year earlier. Another 10,000 came to hear him speak in Lowell, Forrant said.