Traitors to the Crown: British Military Veterans in the IRA, 191823

Friday, January 4, 2019: 11:30 AM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Matthew Kovac, University of Oxford
This paper seeks to explain how Irish First World War veterans came to join the Irish Republican Army upon their return home, taking up arms against the same British Empire they had loyally served in the trenches only several years before. By examining veteran memoirs, service records, and pension files, I will argue that these veterans were politicized and then radicalized by the war itself, well before the “blood sacrifice” of the 1916 Easter Rising. Shaken by the horrors of mechanized combat and keenly aware of their dual status as both white men and colonial subjects, Irish veterans found solidarity in unlikely places as the war brought them into contact with other colonized peoples, sharpening their sense of global anti-colonial consciousness and setting the stage for their revolt against the British crown. From the trenches of France to the jungles of East Africa, I will show how Irish veterans across all theaters of the war constructed their First World War experience as senseless, unjustified butchery, giving them a useful template against which to construct their War of Independence as limited, justified, and rational – even if this conflict, too, would ultimately prove similarly brutal and disillusioning. Given the lethal brew of economic austerity and demobilized troops present today in the United States, understanding the forces that drive veterans into revolutionary versus counter-revolutionary paramilitary formations remains grimly relevant. By exploring the development of anti-colonial consciousness among Irish troops and their revolutionary mobilization in the early 1920s, this paper will offer crucial insights into veteran radicalization and reintegration in our present age of war and austerity.
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