Why it is wrong to airbrush the Fighting Irish from our history
History — the tale that a country tells of itself — is never about all the events that befall the people of that country, but, more usually, about the events that conform with the prevailing narrative.
Any number of books have dealt with Ireland during that winsomely named thing ‘The Emergency’. But they have usually dealt with the major world events — in which Irishmen were certainly participants, but which do not also form part of the national narrative — with an austere factual economy.
The recent Irish and British media coverage of the events of 70 years ago tell us something about the ways two different narratives have been shaped.
There has, so far as I have noticed, been no reflection at all in the Irish media on the calamities of 1940. British newspapers, on the other hand, have been obsessing about them.
It is as if the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland were in two different hemispheres, rather than sharing the same archipelago and having land frontiers with no other polities but one another.
The neglect of this period within the Irish collective psyche is, of course, natural for a country whose independence had so recently been won; but it is nonetheless a considerable achievement. Because the total Irish death toll for the Fall of France and Norway was about 500 men, and probably more.
The largest single Irish loss of life that summer came with the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, and her two escorts, in the flight from Norway. Sixty-five Irishmen died in the complement of 1,200.
This was a catastrophe that was almost entirely of Churchill's making, from the appointment of a submariner to be skipper of the aircraft carrier, to the impetuous despatch of the taskforce home to Britain.
Twenty-two of the dead came from Cork, including the brothers James and Joseph Regan, of Leap. One of the seven Dublin dead was surgeon Dermot Duggan, an only child, whose father had been killed in Flanders in 1917.
As for motivation, I say nothing, but merely draw your attention to one 19-year-old Cork-born sailor lost with the Glorious: Patrick Pearse Murphy.
Irish censors, who had earlier allowed Irish deaths to be published in newspapers, now stopped this. And who can blame de Valera's government for putting some prudent distance between what seemed like a doomed Britain, and a defenceless Ireland?
We now know that Hitler was not really interested in defeating the British: he wanted to see if he could force the British to the table without a full-scale invasion.
But no one was aware back then that his mind was already shifting to the east, where within a year he would launch Operation Barbarossa.
Instead, that summer of 1940, it seemed the world was about to come to an end.
It certainly was for hundreds of Irishmen serving in the British Army. Nearly 400 were to lose their lives in the retreats to Dunkirk, St Valery and St Nazaire.
It was off this last port that |the greatest single loss of Irish life occurred, when the RMS |Lancastria — with thousands |of troops aboard — was sunk |by dive-bombers as it headed |to Britain. Some 23 Irishmen |are known to have been killed here.
The deaths of at least 18 other Irishmen in the Fall of France are clouded in mystery. Joseph Fahy, of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was possibly captured and murdered by the SS in one of a series of massacres of British POWs.
Others still were taken prisoner and died unseen and forgotten in POW camps: thus the fate of Patrick O'Connell (25), of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who died in April 1941 and is buried in Berlin War Cemetery.
Interred in that same necropolis is Frederick Fellner from Dublin.
He died within months of freedom, on December 16, 1944. I do not know how this young Catholic Irishman, of clearly German ancestry, came to be serving with the Royal Artillery in 1940 against Germany, or how he died in Germany in 1944.
He just did.
Seventy years ago this summer the Battle of Britain lay ahead. Some 33 Irishmen serving with the RAF were killed in that great conflict — 12 from the north and 21 from the south.
You groan: why do I tell you, yet again, of these things? Good question.
Here's another one. Why have you read this far?