The great Irish historian Roy Foster has argued that the First World War is one of the most decisive events in the history of modern Ireland, one with a profound impact on Ireland’s politics, economy, and society. Yet in spite of this the war remains an under-examined event, lacking the attention given to the Famine, the Home Rule campaign, and the Anglo-Irish War.
Given this deficiency, Keith Jeffery’s book is a welcome addition to the historical literature. Developed from a series of presentations given in the Lees Knowles Lecture series at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1998, this book provides an examination of a number of aspects of Ireland and the war. In four chapters, Jeffery examines why Irishmen signed up for the conflict, the experience of the war, the impact of the war on Irish culture, and how Ireland has remembered the war. In doing so, he tackles a number of knotty questions and demolishes a few myths, addressing the complicated motivations behind enlistment, the dream of Irish Nationalist politicians to organize distinctively Irish military units, and the political complications within Ireland of honoring a war fought for the British – one that many Irish revolutionaries so resolutely opposed.
Supplemented with a useful bibliographic essay, Jeffery’s book is a valuable overview of a frequently neglected aspect of Irish history. Though hardly a comprehensive survey of the subject, it addresses many of the aspects of the war and its role in Irish history. Until the war receives the specialized attention it deserves, this will remain the best starting point for understanding how the war affected Ireland and how the Irish people have grappled with its memory.