Ballinrobe and the Great War
Last weekend’s ceremonies at the Mayo Peace Park, and the excellent exhibition currently running at the County Library, probably represent the first occasion when the events of the Great War, and their local impact, have got a public airing.
As we are now beginning to acknowledge, history has not been kind to those of our people who enlisted to fight in that awful war, who marched off with bands playing and the crowds cheering, and who returned - those that were lucky - to a land where they were shunned and marginalised and their Irishness questioned.
Between the time they left in 1914 and their return four years later, Ireland, and public sentiment, had changed utterly. That surge of goodwill for recruitment, and the belief that in so doing the enlisted were paving the way for Home Rule and self government, was turned on its head in the aftermath of 1916, when relations between the rulers and the ruled were fractured forever.
When Prime Minister Asquith came to Dublin in that fateful September of 1914 to appeal to the Irish to enlist, he was met with enthusiastic support. Within months, Recruiting Offices had been set up across Mayo, organised under the auspices of the Marquis of Sligo, His Majesty’s Lieutenant for County Mayo. Nor was there any conflict of ideology between advocating Home Rule and an end to British domination, on one hand, and of volunteering to fight for small nations against the cruel and despotic German foe on the other.
Nowhere was the spirit of support for enlistment more strong than in Ballinrobe, a town with a long and harmonious association with the British Army. Two months after Asquith’s visit, twenty five young men from Ballinrobe presented themselves for recruitment. It was a gesture which prompted the Freeman’s Journal to comment approvingly “There is not a town of its size and population in the province of Connaught that has contributed more men to the war than has Ballinrobe”.
When Captain Nicholas Balfe, the Recruiting Officer for Connaught, visited Ballinrobe the following February, twenty seven men signed up on the day of his visit, bringing the total Ballinrobe enrolment to 130. It was interesting however that the first initial surge of enrolment was not maintained for long. Historian and librarian, Alan King, estimated that by mid 1915, almost half of what would be the total Irish enlistment had been made. By 1918, support for recruitment had withered. Disillusion set in with a public which had expected from the start that the war would be short-lived (‘home by Christmas’), and the horrors and savagery of the trenches became known. At the same time, republican sentiment had increased, and the fate of the 1916 leaders at British hands had turned the tide of public opinion against the Army.
Even in loyal Ballinrobe, where the first two local sons killed in action on the same day - James Goulding and Richard Biggins - had been followed by another twenty five, support for the war effort had dissipated.
And at a huge public meeting in the town in 1918, presided over by Canon Dalton, it was declared that ‘no bastard Home Rule would be taken in exchange for the blood of the people’.