Donal Buckley, whose family refused to discuss his grandfather's service in the British army, calls for rethinking such attitudes toward those who "took the King's shilling."

By Capt. Donal Buckley (Irish Army, ret.)

'Twas England bade our Wild Geese go
That small nations might be free
But their lonely graves are by Suvla's waves
And the fringe of the grey North Sea. ...
-- From the Irish folksong "The Foggy Dew"

Castlebar, County Mayo - During the Anglo-Boer War, my grandfather, J.P. Buckley, and his comrades, telegraphers in the Royal Postal Service in Ireland, volunteered to serve in the British army, which was very much in need of their skills. I only learned of his service two years ago.

Courtesy of Donal Buckley
The author's grandfather, British army veteran P.J. Buckley, with his bride Nora Horgan, Cork, 1908.

His siblings - my aunts and uncles -- said they never knew and did not want to know how their brother had come to serve the Crown. 716 Pte J.P. Buckley, who suffered the deprivations of war in 1901 and 1902, went to his grave unable to talk to anybody about his service, to remember. In decades of Remembrance Days that followed, he went about his business keeping his thoughts and memories to himself. How wrong and cruel this was.

Not withstanding the war's rights and wrongs, these men did their duty, as they saw it, for the government of the day.

Subsequently, soldiers of Irish ancestry, most notably perhaps, the men of the 69th New York Infantry, helped fill the ranks of America's forces who helped defeat the Axis in two world wars. They are honored by freedom-loving people worldwide. Yet as another Remembrance Day arrives and much of the world pays homage to those who gave their lives for freedom in these conflicts, the outlook for honors for the Irish who fought in both wars serving in the British army, while improving, is still rather bleak.


These men, many, if not indeed most, fought with all their hearts and souls, deserve the gratitude of Irishmen and women around the world, and most of all in Mother Ireland. Yet many find it unsettling paying tribute to those who "took the King's shilling," even in such noble enterprises as the wars for the "freedom of small nations" and the later war against fascism.

The Irish veterans of World War I are particularly and tragically misunderstood. These men, more than 120,000 strong, deserve our nation's thanks. Here's why:

Should the Irish honor their countrymen who served in the British forces in WWI? Discuss the issue inThe Wild Geese Forum, IRISH HISTORY, NON-STOP, WORLDWIDE.

In 1912, two years prior to the outbreak of World War I, home rule looked certain to finally come to Ireland. Unionists were quick to react, forming the Ulster Volunteer Force, running guns to arm it, and uphold the Union with Britain, to the death if need be.

The Irish Volunteers, in five years to become the IRA, was formed to support the democratic arrival of the Home Rule Bill. Ireland teetered on the brink of civil war, but the outbreak of World War I dramatically intervened.

In September 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force demonstrated its loyalty and en masse joined the British army to support the war effort. The leaders of the Irish Volunteers urged their followers to join, too, to fight for the "Freedom of Small Nations" and for "Poor Little Catholic Belgium"

Imperial War Museum
Some of the few surviving officers of the 5th Battalion, Connaught Rangers, after the battle of Kosturino, December 1915, where the regiment took 50 percent casualties.

Indeed, many of the Irish Volunteers hearkened to the call, believing that Britain would reward this demonstration of loyalty by granting Ireland its freedom at war's end. More than 30,000 out of 118,000 Irish Volunteers joined the war effort, and were sent off with Union Jacks waving and cheers. They went with the support of the majority of Irish people. They felt they were fighting for Ireland, Her honor, and Her freedom.

Nevertheless, a hardcore minority of Irish Volunteers and members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided that "England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity" and began to plan a rising for 1916. It was decided that this would awaken Ireland's soul. With the help of Germany, they believed, Ireland could finally gain her freedom, with no strings attached.

The Rising failed, and the British army protected surrendered Volunteers from angry Dublin mobs, who saw them as, at best, vandals and, at worst, traitors, people who conspired with the enemy.

Finally, over a week or so, in a colossal misreading of the Irish public, the British executed the leaders of the Rising, dramatically gaining for the rebels what they had found elusive -- respect for the sheer courage of what they attempted. British internment of many involved in the Rising, even tangentially, helped quicken the change of heart.

When the prisoners were released, they came back to tumultuous receptions, flag waving (the Irish tricolor, this time), and cheers. They returned as heroes. Public contempt for Britain was furthered by the British government's attempt to introduce conscription. Nearly half a million Irishmen were already in the British army. The Irish Volunteers, IRB, and now even the Catholic Church railed against conscription.

Parliamentary elections in 1918 became a referendum on Irish independence, as Sinn Fein candidates were overwhelmingly successful at the polls. The Dáil was established and a Declaration of Independence was issued. Britain then declared this democratically elected government illegal. War began. It was a brutal affair, with British forces destroying Irish villages and citizens, in acts of retribution that served to ratchet up the hatred.

By the time the former Irish Volunteers returned from the trenches, the political climate in Ireland had utterly changed. The Irish public often treated these men with suspicion, and even hostility. Like American soldiers returning from Vietnam, these British army veterans were ignored, or derided and at times attacked. These Irish veterans, who suffered dreadfully for their country, were treated like the enemy.

Like American soldiers returning from Vietnam, these British army veterans were ignored, or derided, and at times attacked.

Many of these combat veterans used their wartime experiences against their former colleagues, in joining the IRA and fighting for the fledgling Irish government. Commanders Tom Barry and Emmet Dalton are two examples.

After the unfortunate and bitter Civil War, those who had fought in the trenches became invisible, until in 1966, at the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, then-Taoiseach Seán Lemass appealed for an acknowledgment of the sacrifices and dedication of those who fought for Ireland in the trenches of "The Great War." His call went unheeded.

Things are changing, though, at last. The memories of Irish soldiers who fought are being resurrected.

We are maturing as a nation and are beginning to see above the high parapet of one-sided history that was fed to us. We are becoming better people as a result. Even in embattled Northern Ireland, nationalists are finally beginning to claim their relatives who served.

Alex Maskey, the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, was gracious enough to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph, albeit before the official ceremony. Martin Meehan, another Sinn Féin activist, lay a wreath at his grandfather's grave near the Somme battlefield, calling upon Irish men and women to acknowledge that these soldiers fought in France because they believed it would serve the cause of Irish freedom.

Remembrance is not just a Unionist duty, but an obligation for all Irish people.

Writer Donal Buckley is a retired captain in the Irish army, serving for a time with the UN force posted in Lebanon. He previously wrote "The West Cork Trail: Scenes From the Anglo-Irish and Civil Wars, 1... for WGT. Donal owns and operates Military Heritage Tours from his home in Castlebar, County Mayo, specializing in Ireland's battlefields and military heritage in Ireland and abroad. To learn more, visit MHT's website at

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Tags: Freedom, Irish, Struggle


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