After the outbreak of the First World War, men flocked to recruiting stations in Ireland. Their motivations were often the same as those who joined up in England, Scotland and Wales: a sense of duty, the belief that the war was a just cause, a desire for adventure, the bonds of friendship and economic reasons.
Seventeen-year-old Tom Barry enlisted ‘for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man’, whilst Wexford man James English calculated that his family income would increase by over 150 per cent if he were to enlist.
If You are an Irishman
If You are an Irishman
A First World War Irish recruitment poster. You can see this poster in the 'Your Country Needs You' area of our First World War Galleries.
Wallace Lyon explained his reason for joining up: ‘I cannot claim to have been actuated by any excess of loyalty to King and Country. I had enjoyed pig sticking in India, and I thought it would be great fun to try my hand at the Uhlans [German cavalry].’
Most unionists saw a common cause with Britain in its fight against Germany, whilst many republicans who joined the British Army saw the fate of small nations such as Belgium and Serbia as chiming with their own desire for self-determination for Ireland. Nationalist leader John Redmond, in a famous speech at Woodenbridge in September 1914, urged nationalists to fight ‘in defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right’. Any lack of support for the war might jeopardise Home Rule, which had been postponed until ‘not later than the present war’. Not all republicans, however, believed that Ireland should participate in the war.
In total, approximately 140,000 men in Ireland enlisted in the British Army, 50,000 of them in the first six months of the war. So as not to upset nationalist feelings, conscription was never enforced in Ireland, as it would be in the rest of the United Kingdom in 1916. Not all Irish men ended up in Irish regiments. In the early stages of the war, replacements were so desperately needed that some men found themselves attached to non-Irish units in need of reinforcements.
The figures given above do not include Irish-born men who served with other British Empire forces. Some of the many Irish immigrants to countries such as Canada and Australia decided to enlist with the forces of their adopted homelands. The US Army also had Irish men in its ranks.
You can hear some of the Irish men who fought in the First World War talk about their experiences in RTE’s online exhibition, Ireland and the Great War.