Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

It is probably not coincidental that the passing of the very last of the generation who fought in the first world war has coincided with a rise in overt nationalism centred around displays of the poppy as a symbol of British military commemoration. With the second world war generation, too, now dwindling rapidly, an aggressively vocal lobby insistently equates both generation’s sacrifice, as individuals and units, with a celebration of British imperial policy and militarism. This is conducted at such a volume that it drowns out any nuanced discussion of the experience of serving in the British forces. This is maybe most acute for those, particularly in Ireland, whose relatives were more likely driven into the British Army by circumstances than any political conviction.
You can get a clear, and unapologetic, sense of what the poppy, as a symbol, is intended to commemorate from the British Legion. Under its pages on remembrance, it specifically stipulates that it includes the recent conflict in the north (one in which the British army was allowed to use violence with impunity). The Legion also pointedly includes…those who fought with them and alongside them”, which would obviously cover the local unionist militias, the RUC and UDR, which were both discredited and then disbanded. Arguably it also extends to the unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA and UVF who fought ‘alongside them’, given the British government’s continuing refusal to open up its archives on the extent to which it operated those groups as local counter-gangs.
There is peculiar lobby among the likes of Fine Gael and the Irish Labour party that try and promote the poppy. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that they appear to barely have a surface knowledge of what the British Legion actually tells us the poppy is meant to commemorate. Ironically, the leader of the Irish government probably wore a British Legion poppy in Leinster House the other day simply to provoke Sinn Féin members present (in the hope that he could use a backlash to retrospectively validate his embarrassing car crash comments about sexism in an interview the previous day).
What we are seeing there, really, is the long term impact on censorship in the south. After Section 31 of the broadcasting ban lapsed, media censorship, and the world view it had promoted, have more or less persisted in a voluntary form. No real attempt has been made in the south to either revisit events or explore other perspectives on the conflict in the north and, in reality, most people who formed their views, values and opinions under Section 31 have no sense of having been exposed to heavily censored media coverage. That pretty much extends to any genuine understanding of the typical Irish experience in the British military which many seem to completely blur with a broader anti-republicanism sensibility.
Ex-servicemen (and indeed some still enlisted in the British army) appear to have always been a component of republican organisations. IRB leader William Harbinson’s life is illustrative of how young men typically ended up in the British Army. Driven from his birthplace in Ballinderry to Liverpool at the height of the famine, he enlisted underage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his army service was punctuated with bouts of ill-health. Yet, through the likes of Harbinson, the IRB organisation appears to have relied upon serving British soldiers for access to military capability and arms.
The year after Harbinson’s death, James Connolly was born – brought up in great poverty, he too enlisted underage in the British Army and was one of a number of those who participated in 1916 that had a military background. It is notable, now, how the input of ex-servicemen surely contributed to the overall tactical view of the IRB. It embraced using some form of conventional standing army to establish an Irish republic, either using serving soldiers (as in 1867) or the Irish volunteers and Citizen’s Army (as in 1916). After 1916, and the formation of an Irish Republican Army, ironically, the tactical remit instead shifted to guerrilla actions (even though it still had many members who were former British soldiers).
In Belfast in 1920-22, ex-servicemen were prominent in the ad hoc defence of districts that came under attack from unionists. Joseph Giles, a former soldier killed when the military opened fire in Bombay Street on 22nd July 1920 is noted as an IRA volunteer in Jim McDermot’s Northern Divisions. Other former soldiers, like Daniel Hughes and Freddy Craig, were killed when unionists attacked their home districts or, as in the case of Malachy Halfpenny, were abducted, tortured and killed by B Specials. In some districts, like Ballymacarret, many ex-servicemen were believed to have joined the IRA and provided the spine of the republican forces that defended the district from attack. Certainly, in most IRA units, former British soldiers provided the technical support to maintain weapons and train in their use. Even in the 1950s, the IRA was able to place members inside British Army barracks in preparation for arms raids. In the 1970s, again in the face of unionist violence, ex-servicemen (this time, formally) grouped themselves under the banner of the Catholic (later ‘Local’) Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
In areas of high socio-economic deprivation (across Ireland), the needs of the British for servicemen offered an opportunity for the paid work (and pension) and a trade that were often denied to them in their own districts. How far the economic necessity that drove them into the services was underscored by political support is difficult to disentangle.
One hundred years ago, Charles O’Neill, my great-grandfather, a veteran of both India and the Boer War, was serving on the Italian front. He also had a brother at sea with the British Navy. After the war he was still burnt out of Ballyhackamore and driven from his work by ‘loyalists’. Whether he was political at all, never mind supportive of British imperial policy, he was to be brutally schooled in the value placed on his military service. Yet economics also dictated that two of his sons (my granny’s brothers, Andy and Charlie) also fought in the British Army during the second world war (my granny also had one brother-in-law in the US Army and another as Adjutant-General of the IRA). Charles, Andy and Charlie’s experience was probably typical. Political or not, they chose not to serve in the likes of the RUC or UDR that the British Legion now commemorate as having fought alongside the British Army. I suspect the current flag-waving poppy celebrations of the British Legion would be completely alien to them.
The traditional inclusion of ex-servicemen within Irish republican organisations is often overlooked and has probably yet to be fully explored. Opening it up may provide some rich insights. While a British soldier in Dublin, James Connolly likely participated in war games that included defending Dublin city. Given that he was one of a number of former servicemen who took part in the Rising, was the often derided military plan for the Rising based on an insight into the British defensive strategy practised in war games in which the likes of Connolly took place?
Connolly may also have provided the most succinct rationalisation of the motivation behind a young Irish man joining the British Army “…let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community.

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