Review of “Dublin’s Great Wars”

Dublin’s Great Wars: the First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution
by Richard S. Grayson
published by Cambridge University Press in 2018
Hardback ISBN 978 1 107 0295 5
379 pages plus endnotes (extensive 59 pages), bibliography, index, illustrated
Reviewed by Chris Baker

The period of Irish history of 1912 to 1922 is one that has long held my interest. I have no close personal relationship to it and no Irish linkage that I know of in my family except for an uncle I have not seen for many years and a recent discovery of a connection via marriages to one of the very brave women who helped man the Dublin GPO during the Easter rising in 1916. In fact, via my wife’s family I have more connection to Belfast than Dublin. It was only as I gradually became a student of the British Army and the Great War that I even began to grasp what a central role Ireland played in our joint history of that period. I also like trying to understand complicated things – and they do not come more tangled than this.

I have read much on this subject but “Dublin’s Great Wars” comes out very high on a long list of excellent work. Inevitably it encompasses the wider Ireland but is focused sharply on the city and county of Dublin and of Dubliners. Richard Grayson has managed to produce a very readable account that spans down from high-level political considerations and military action, right down to the human experience of hundreds of individuals on all sides of the conflict. The research work is quite breathtaking and would, I believe, have been nigh-on impossible but for digitisation: we can find records of men from a particular area, for example, very much easier than had been the case before.

It is intertwining of recruitment for the forces of the Crown (notably but far from solely the 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions) with the response and development of nationalist factions that ultimately fought against those forces that makes this a compelling read. I do not recall, for example, such an explicit juxtaposition of the Easter rising with the fact that thousands of Irishmen were being gassed and killed at Hulluch at the same time. It all underlines what an extraordinarily complex situation this was: support for the war; pacifism; support for the British; plot to overthrow to British; Redmond’s volunteers; the Irish Republican Brotherhood; change of sentiment after the execution of the rebel leaders and the incarceration of many more thorough martial law; the development of the Irish Republican Army and guerilla warfare; the splits and tensions of the establishment of the Free State; and more. Families split; individuals changing sides. It is not an easy story to tell but “Dublin’s Great Wars” does it brilliantly.  It challenges myths and legends and as far as I can see is objective and balanced.

For anyone completely new to the subject, I would recommend reading this alongside a few others (perhaps Foy and Barton’s “The Easter Rising” or Charles Townshend’s “The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923”, for example).

Grayson has written a necessary book and one worth your time.

Buy it