- Heroes or Traitors? Experiences of Southern Irish Soldiers Returning from the Great War, 1919–39 by Paul Taylor
Irish participation in the Great War—at the front and at home—has been a fruitful subject for new and innovative study in recent years. Paul Taylor's book is the first devoted to following the men who survived the horrors of the fields of France, the trenches of Flanders, or further afield, only to return to an Ireland transformed and in the midst of a new and very different conflict. It also traces what became of men who had worn the uniform of the British Army, fighting for the "wrong" side in the eyes of many of their compatriots, after legislative independence was achieved for 26 Irish counties. In that sense alone, this is a valuable work.
Heroes or Traitors? is divided into three sections. The focus throughout is on southern Ireland, with the six-counties that became Northern Ireland excluded from analysis. Part I examines the period of revolutionary struggle in Ireland from the War of Independence, through the foundation of the Irish Free State, and into the subsequent Irish Civil War; Part II examines the nature of Britain's obligation to its southern Irish ex-servicemen after demobilization, and the provision of pensions, employment, and homes in the 26 counties; Part III turns its attention to the experiences of ex-servicemen in the Irish Free State and asks whether these former Crown servants became a marginalised and unwelcome cohort in Irish society.
In Part I, Taylor makes the case that ex-servicemen were not disproportionate victims of republican violence and intimidation; when they did become targets it was rarely motivated by their status as ex-servicemen alone. Taylor is thus critical of earlier conclusions by other historians, most notably Peter Hart and Jane Leonard. Key to this argument are the records of the second Irish Grants Committee, a British Treasury-funded scheme of compensation for selfproclaimed southern Irish loyalists that sat in the late 1920s. Taylor has diligently mined over 200 boxes of claim files—an impressive feat of research—and determined that 262 ex-servicemen applied to the scheme, with 73 equating their loss directly to former Crown service but most suggesting a range of other explanations. This certainly offers an important challenge to any idea of exservicemen as an easily-labelled and victimised minority. But worthy of further consideration are many others who spoke of husbands, sons, and brothers who [End Page 1434] had served in the war, specifically as evidence of their own loyalty. Their voices offer additional insights into the nature—and perhaps just as importantly, the perception—of violence, threat, and petty persecution against ex-servicemen and their families.
Usefully, analysis is also offered from the perspective of the 'perpetrators,' taken from Bureau of Military History Witness Statements collected in the 1940s and 1950s. Taylor has further mined this collection—over 1,700 statements (now available online)—for references to violence against ex-servicemen. From this analysis, it is suggested that those shot by the IRA (the most contested in the historiography) were usually executed on the basis of firm evidence they had acted as informers. The Bureau statements must, however, be treated cautiously and contemporary material is rarely used to test, corroborate, or challenge veteran testimony. It is, for instance, a shame that University College Dublin Archives' impressive collection of material for the period—especially the voluminous papers of IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy—was not consulted. Overall, there is much of value here but a tendency in literature on this period to favour sweeping conclusions, rather than fully embracing nuance and shades of grey, is also occasionally in evidence.
Parts II and III bring most that is new and enlightening. Even with the loss of twenty-six counties, Britain retained legal obligations to Irishmen who had served in its forces. The unique situation in southern Ireland complicated attempts to meet these Imperial obligations—including specific promises made to...