IN his book Principles of Freedom published in the year of his own passing in 1920, former Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney pointed out that, ‘Death sobers us all’. That was two years after the end of World War I, a seismic moment in history — representing both endings and beginnings for many people and countries — that we commemorate here this month.
Those words must have rang so true for the people of the day, as men returned to Cork from the battlefields of Europe — from Gallipoli, Salonika, Ypres, the Somme — having ventured forth for many reasons, with many prophets having whispered in their ears and with many possible outcomes in their hearts and minds. As the immediate aftermath of this war was still being so painfully felt in this city, MacSwiney also suggested that, “We have surrounded with fictitious glory the carnage of the battlefields. We have shouted of wading through our enemies’ blood as if bloody fields were beautiful. War is hell.”
20 million military and civilian deaths later, in just four years, he could not have summed it up any better.
As we live our lives in a very different Cork, 100 years on from those gruesome days, we must be careful to frame our memory and interpretation of that war — our opinions and our consciousness — on the times that were in it and not from the comfortable remote of a century’s drift. It is easy to protest and object for the sake of protest and objection: but that is to miss the point entirely at a time when we are not in fact honouring or celebrating war but rather are honouring and remembering all our people who were caught up in it and calling to mind the brittle nature of humanity.
Because it is only how we honour those who went before us and draw from their time a lesson that we can begin to dream about our futures which must include avoiding the carnage and futility of another devastating global war.
We look around at the young people of today and see them face opportunity and challenges in equal measure. We see them playing sport, music, engaging in drama, arts, culture, volunteering in their communities, studying to better themselves, venturing into public life, travelling the world...we see them struggling for homes, for decent jobs, for proper healthcare; they are the children of the modern-day, we are proud of them, we honour them, they are of Cork.
Now cast our minds back one hundred years and to their young ancestors, their equivalents, in a radically different time and generation that was struggling to recover from enforced famine, unemployment and a diminution of civil and human rights. I imagine many of them leaving these streets, their families, their friends to fight a ‘short war’ in the promise of a better life. They too were children of our city, we are proud of them, we honour them; they were and are of Cork.
To say this is not in any way to honour war, cause or motivation among those who fought in World War I, from the distant perspective of a generation removed or to compare them with those who fought for liberty here at home. Our own baggage of today and intervening years must not cloud our judgement of that time. For although we can ask, we will never truly know or understand what motivated those young men (predominantly) to the Western Front and beyond.
Was it for reasons of mere survival in an economy still ravaged by the rural and urban poverty of famine and suppression that some 200,000 nationally went to fight alongside our country’s greatest foe? Was it because Ireland’s heightened and emerging chance for freedom — a Home Rule Bill that had entered the statute book in Sept 1914 only to be suspended until after the war — had an even greater chance of succeeding if Irishmen answered the call and fought alongside that foe which was now a country at war?
We will never know, of course, but we should have the maturity to contemplate the Cork people, the Irish people, who made that choice for their own reasons and be thoughtful in our reflections. That some have the freedom to organise protests to coincide with these commemorations could well be viewed as a result of a liberty won and later preserved by those who went to war and made a much more difficult choice than we will ever countenance.
We should be thankful for the people they were…those ordinary Cork men and women who too had their hopes and dreams and lives coloured by the ins and outs of their existence by the Lee. Their story represents a chapter in our city’s history, indeed our country’s complex make-up that has often been difficult to talk about and rationalise amid a national reluctance to recognise the role of the Irish in WW 1 as the country fought for self-determination. Yet this should not mean it be avoided altogether, as was once the case.
The world has moved on since 1918, and though we will not forget the complex tapestry of our past and especially our relationship with Britain, neither should we be held hostage by it.
The story of Cork and Irish service in World War I is one of hope, fear, guilt, bravery, loss, regret. In my family, we recently discovered a relative who left Griffin’s Place on Barrack Street with hundreds of others from the city to fight with an Irish regiment in France, only to never return. None of his people had ever seen or stopped by his grave up to this year when my own family journeyed to a graveside in a remote cemetery in northern France. He was wiped from history as part of an entire generation that was butchered and damned.
Young Private Cornelius O’Mahony was of Cork, of Ireland, an ordinary man who might today ply a trade in the city or attend college or be a member of the defence forces, and at this time we honour him and remember all those like him who sacrificed their lives for uncertain ends 100 years ago.
Did they really believe when they answered the call, that this war would end wars?
When you consider that just 20 years after the end of that first World War, millions were back on the battlefields again losing their lives in a second world bloodbath, it speaks volumes for humanity and how lightly human life is treated on this planet, ‘man’s blind indifference to his fellow man’. Such an occurrence happening again is certainly something worth protesting about and standing up against and preventing, but everything has its time and place.
We recognise that Cork’s involvement in World War I is part of our DNA and is a story that needs to be told and told again. We need to remember those ordinary men and women who left the green hills of Cork for the green fields of France, many never to return, others suffering the experience for the rest of their lives... and acknowledge them.
Continuing to tell their stories is our best salute to them and to our past, as well as providing a cautionary prelude to our future.
Lest we forget.