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They Shall Grow Not Old
Irish Soldiers and the Great War
Myles Dungan

 American Historical Review
‘Irish interest in the role of the Irish soldiers in World War I has increased greatly in recent years. For over seventy years, Nationalist Ireland shunned those who fought in British or Allied armies in this century’s conflicts. Favour was instead heaped upon those who fought in the Irish national revolution of 1916-1923. Only Unionist Ireland sought to remember its service in the British forces as a mark of Unionist loyalty to the crown. Now, Nationalist Ireland is re-exploring its role in the Great War through writers such as Myles Dungan. As he says in his introduction, the book focuses on soldiers from the present-day Republic of Ireland who fought in the 1914-1918 war. The book is Dungan’s second on this them, and it will help bring back to popular memory a period of Irish history to which many Irish men and women would previously have paid little attention – either through ignorance or because of their wariness to approach what was considered to be a taboo subject.

The book starts on a very cautious note. Dungan writes that the text is “not a work of academic history” and is merely designed “to keep before the public eye a neglected area of historical research.” Dungan is giving unnecessary hostages to fortune with this remark, and he is definitely playing down the importance of the book’s contents. He has no need to do so; both as a secondary and a primary source the work is fascinating. It tells, in thematic form, the story of ordinary Irish men who lived and died in an ugly and obscene conflict. The book answers questions any reader or researcher might ask: why did Irish men join up in the first place, how did they cope with life in the trenches, how did they cope physically and psychologically with the closeness of death and the carnage of the trench warfare? one vivid section examines how ordinary soldiers felt as they were about to go over the top and illustrates their feelings through a judicious use of quotes. The difficult and emotional question of the fate of those who were “shot at dawn” is treated with due concern and Dungan brings their fate up to present day by examining the attempts to rehabilitate those who were not executed but who clearly exhibited post-traumatic stress syndrome. The use of primary material from memoirs, letters, and interviews captures vividly the experience of the Irish in the war and their reaction to events in Ireland such as the 1916 Rising. The reader is struck by the quality of the prose in the letters of young men living in the trenches and by how death and destruction became normal and the extraordinary became routine. There is ample primary material in this book to use it as a teaching source. The descriptions of life and death at the front line are evocative and vivid enough to enliven even the most jaded an uninterested reader Dungan thorough his sources brings the sheer horror of the trenches alive.

In recent years, the notion of a “new” military history, focusing on the social and economic history of warfare has taken hold. In Ireland, it was exemplified by the publication of A Military History of Ireland edited by Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffrey (1995). The work presently under review fits into this genre. It conveys the emotional, physical and sociological impact of trench warfare on human beings as Irish soldiers recount their thoughts about the all-encompassing war in which they and their friends lived, fought and died. The Irish soldiers who fought in the Great War have grown old and have nearly all passed into history themselves. Dungan mentions again and again throughout the text the death of many of his interviewees, but a work such as this will enable their memory to live on’ Michael J. Kennedy, American Historical Review.

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