In Dublin’s Great Wars: The First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution, Richard S. Grayson offers a microhistory that traces the stories of Dublin men from their enlistment to fight in the trenches of World War I to their afterlives in post-war Ireland and the Irish Revolution. While wishing for a wider-reaching conclusion, Matthew Kovac praises the book for its compelling use of a rich vein of archival material and stunningly granular dataset.
Dublin’s Great Wars: The First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution. Richard S. Grayson. Cambridge University Press. 2019.
With the last of the First World War centenaries receding and the centennial celebrations of the Irish War of Independence now upon us, Richard S. Grayson’s latest hyper-local military history, Dublin’s Great Wars, is just the book to bridge the gap – and none too soon. As Brexit-based fears of a return to a ‘hard border’ swirl across Ireland, the bloody origins of the island’s 1921 partition are worth re-examining.
Building on the success of his similarly data-driven Belfast Boys (2009), Grayson aims to tell the tale of war and revolution through the travails of the larger city to the south, tracing the stories of Dublin men from enlistment to the trenches to their grim and often violent afterlives in post-war Ireland. The result is a military microhistory as remarkable for its methods as its findings.
Grayson’s thesis is that the First World War and the Irish Revolution are overlapping, intimately connected conflicts that are best understood in relation to one another. This territory has been trodden before, most recently in the late Keith Jeffery’s 1916: A Global History. What sets this venture apart is firstly, the stunningly granular dataset Grayson uses to recreate wartime Dublin; and secondly, his seamless weaving together of the military and rebel narratives, with special attention to the ‘crossovers’: men who fought in both the British forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), though not always in that order.
On a purely technical level, Grayson’s number-crunching is impressive. Cross-referencing tens of thousands of military files and census records, he arrives not only at the number of Dubliners serving in dedicated Irish regiments (13,128), but also those dispersed across English-majority regiments as well as specialist units like the Royal Engineers and Medical Corps (23,957 total). Armed with these spreadsheets, Grayson is able to tabulate which neighbourhoods, down to individual streets, suffered the worst losses. Day by day and week by week, Grayson shows how the casualties mounted, with set-piece battles like Gallipoli and the Somme ravaging entire city blocks.
This is not merely a mathematical exercise, however. Grayson draws on this cartography of grief to explain the lack of popular support for the 1916 Easter Rising in the hardest-hit neighbourhoods, some of which had a front-row seat to the rebellion. His Easter Week chapters, which entwine the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ fighting at Hulluch in Belgium with the simultaneous uprising in Dublin, are among the best in the book. Grayson’s eye for detail lends these passages a cinematic flair, capturing the prayers of both Irish troops abroad and rebels back home as they prepared to go into their respective battles.
Image Credit: KE 118, Abbey Street corner, shelled Hibernian Bank building, April-May 1916 (Brendan Keogh/National Library of Ireland, No Known Copyright Restrictions)
Grayson mines a rich vein of archival material to find such moments, including letters home from the front, regimental diaries and medical records. This painstaking research brings stories to light that could have eluded even the closest of archive readers: that of Arthur and Gerald Neilan, brothers who fought on opposite sides of the Rising; the Geraghty family of Middle Gardiner Street, which lost three of their six sons to the war; and, perhaps most memorably, Michael McCabe, an Irishman who ‘switched’ sides no less than four times in his military career, fighting as a teenage rebel in the Rising, a British infantryman in France, an anti-Treaty IRA guerrilla in the Irish Civil War and again as a British soldier in the Second World War. Indeed, he applied for his IRA pension in 1938 from a British base in West Africa, an irony that Grayson uses to great effect in explaining the period’s tangled loyalties.
Perhaps because of the reams of data available to him, Grayson does tend toward overinclusion. Casual readers may tire of his dutiful recounting of the endless re-organisations of the Irish divisions, brigades and battalions following each battle. Likewise, statistics like the average height of Dublin recruits (5’5”) are not immediately relevant to his narrative, but nonetheless feature among the 26 tables in the appendix. Troop serial numbers, too, would have been better left to the endnotes. If the purpose of Grayson’s street-by-street approach is to humanise the casualty figures, the inclusion of these numbers with each man’s introduction – as in ‘Private 40323 John Carter’ – threatens to undermine the process.
Grayson’s work is ultimately too compelling for such issues to rise to the level of distractions. More perplexing is his studied refusal to draw wider lessons from the events he so vividly describes. While extreme cases like McCabe’s defy easy generalisation, Grayson opts not to ‘make many grand overarching arguments about how the World War and the Irish Revolution interacted’, as John Dorney has written in his review of the book. This is a missed opportunity, not least because of the wealth of new scholarship on the ‘Global Irish Revolution’ and republican links to Indian and Egyptian nationalists who launched post-war uprisings in 1919-20.
Fortunately, Grayson does weigh in on some recent historiographical disputes, like the alleged IRA targeting of war veterans and the notion that the First World War was ‘forgotten’ in the Irish Free State, both of which he thoroughly debunks. But his conclusion – that Irish loyalties were complex and often contradictory – follows in the anti-climactic footsteps of Paul Taylor’s 2015 book Heroes or Traitors?, which finished with the unsurprising revelation that Irish First World War veterans ‘were neither heroes nor traitors’. More fine-grained analysis of military and paramilitary volunteerism is needed. As the recent car bomb in Derry has demonstrated, even a century later the wounds of these interconnected wars remain far from healed.
Matthew Kovac is a writer and historian from Chicago. He recently completed a Master of Studies in modern European history at the University of Oxford and now works for a civil rights group in San Francisco. His historical research focuses on Irish veteran reintegration, colonial encounters and paramilitary violence in the wake of the First World War. Follow his work @MatthewKovac.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.