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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Mary Moynihan died of a heart attack in December, 1949. She died after a long, full life. The day before she died, she thought she saw a soldier in a khaki uniform standing by a gate. She thought she saw her son, Michael, killed on the Western Front in June, 1918. When private Patrick O’Hara wrote to tell her what he could of Michael’s death, he knew “no words of mine can heal the wound which his death has made in your heart.” Equally, no words of ours can really fathom the nature of her grief.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 seconds Losses, counted casualties of war and revolution, are sometimes the historian’s way to measure the success or failure of war. Enumeration has its benefits. It gives us perspective, one war against another, asks us to revise or reconsider our conception of war. But each counted life lost serves to keep all the Mary Moynihan’s at arm’s length. We only count the combatants, and not the fullness of their lives they had left behind.

Skip to 1 minute and 24 seconds How do we measure bereavement, calculate the losses that only begin when the news of death reaches home and the loss of life is only the beginning of all sorts of ends? Loss bleeds into the decades long after war and revolution have sent their soldiers home. Loss adheres to a wholly different chronology to the one we tidily observe with conflict’s beginning and conflict’s end.

Skip to 1 minute and 56 seconds The remembrance of life lost, the need to have sacrifice recognised, to acknowledge the cause fought for, to include all the names that should be included on rolls of honour, on monuments, and cenotaphs is part of the politics of memory in Ireland, in Northern Ireland, in Britain, and in every country that grapples with the commemorations of its wars. While some try to score political points each November 11, while others call the Fenian dead to their sides and all kinds of Republican plots, the regular private pilgrimages, the birthdays and anniversaries marked with flowers and tokens of some sort of personal affection, remind us of some of the contradictions between public memory and private grief.

Skip to 2 minutes and 41 seconds Fifth, 10th, 50th, 100th anniversaries might be politically vital to mark, might be opportune to appropriate. But bereavement and grief, they remember the second and the fourth and the 80th anniversary just the same.

Skip to 3 minutes and 3 seconds The mother of Private Daniel Savage wrote politely to the Free State government in November, 1924. “Will you kindly let me have a permit to place a small marble monument over my boy’s resting place in the military plot in Glasnevin,” she wrote. Her son had died fighting with the National Army in the Civil War, and all sorts of elaborate memorials were promised for the grave. When he died, Daniel Savage was 18 years old. His mother received 10 pounds for the loss of his life. She had nine other children at home. She saved what she could to mark her son’s grave. But officials told her not to waste her money.

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 seconds Her son would be honoured with all the soldiers in the fullness of time. In 1957, a concrete curb enclosed the military plot. And it was another decade before the names of the soldiers buried there were listed on the grave. Mrs. Savage may not have lived to see her son’s grave marked. The small wooden crosses, the reeds and the flowers that came and went across the decades in between were grief’s way of saying that sons did not die for nothing, that sons should not be left with the indignity of an unmarked grave.

Skip to 4 minutes and 23 seconds Throughout the country, crosses and monuments began to appear to honour the dead of Ireland’s wars. Some were used for political ends. Some were private tokens of families and friends that promised never to forget. Some took decades to fund and to finish. Some staked claims for their dead to be remembered and for others to be overlooked.

Skip to 4 minutes and 46 seconds War and revolution took all sorts of lives, visited loss on all sorts of families, often with a randomness that made loss seem all the harder to rationalise or explain. If Kate Burke had only stayed at home in Wexford and not gone to meet her sister in Dublin for the Easter break, if only a bomb had been thrown in a slightly different place. Alexander McRae went for chips in Belfast on a Saturday night in January, 1922. He was 18, out with friends, joking and hungry, and lively on a Saturday night. He just happened to be the one caught in the middle of an explosion and gunfire. He didn’t take cover, didn’t hit the ground as fast as he might.

Skip to 5 minutes and 29 seconds Lives were taken by mistake, in anger, in reprisal, in revenge. And families had to come to terms with what death might mean. Frances Sheehy-Skeffington’s family bore the knowledge of how he died in 1916, that a British officer, Captain Bowen-Colthurst, had him and two journalists senselessly put to death.

Skip to 5 minutes and 53 seconds Did the bodies found labelled spy informer label the wife or father or child as sure as if the label on the body was tied around each of their own necks? Were some losses by their nature always going to be harder to bear? When Kate McCormick wrote to the Irish Free State in March, 1922, wanting to know why her son had been killed by the IRA on Bloody Sunday morning almost two years before, what she really seemed to want was to clear his name. “My son was thoroughly Irish in his education and upbringing. Someone should acknowledge that a grave mistake had been made.”

Skip to 6 minutes and 32 seconds When reassured that there was “no particular charge against your son except that he was an Enemy Soldier,” she was glad. “My son’s character is above reproach.” But that wasn’t enough. “Help me with more definite reasons for the sad tragedy which has left me childless and heartbroken,” she wrote. But do reasons only go so far? Can any reason ever be enough when a woman in her 70s has to bury her own only child?

Family legacy

We can consider war’s casualties in all sorts of ways.

We can count them and classify them, use them to make arguments about the nature of war. But how do we begin to understand their loss? How do we fathom what each of the lives lost in war and revolution meant to the fathers and mothers, the children and husbands and wives who mourned? Do grief and bereavement unsettle what we can assume about war? Do they ask us to think more carefully about what we say about war and revolution, what we conclude in some pithy comment or smart remark? Do they undermine our sense that war and revolution really come to an end when all the fighting is done?

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Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland's History 1912-1923

Trinity College Dublin

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