Northern Ireland

Queen to honour Irish who died fighting for Britain

Islandbridge war memorial
Image caption Islandbridge war memorial commemorates the 49,000 Irish soldiers killed in WWI

The Islandbridge war memorial - which the Queen will visit on Wednesday - commemorates the 49,000 Irish soldiers who gave their lives in all armies in the First World War, but most fought with the British.

It is estimated that nearly a third of all young Irish men signed up at the time.

Many did so again for the second world war and indeed after it, including retired Major Sean Murphy, still a proud Irishman, who grew up in Leitrim in the 1950s where there few jobs.

"There must have been 30 in the cohort of my class in primary school in Manorhamilton. And I would say that out of that 30 no more than three stayed there," he said.

"For me the army presented an opportunity, as I saw it, to gain a trade."

There has always been a military tradition here.

But, with a small Irish army because money was, and is, tight and a government policy of military neutrality, there were and are few opportunities for those who wanted a career soldiering and fighting.

Image caption Thousands of young Irishmen fought in the British army

Tom Clonan, a former Irish captain and now a security analyst with the Irish Times, said that partly explains why some young Irish men continue to join the British army and rise through the ranks.

"Senior British army officials will tell you that the Irish stand out from our cousins in the British Isles in that we are more warlike, a little more aggressive and, perhaps, on the whole a little better educated.

"And because of the historical factors at play, a little better motivated than their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales," he said.

Some of those who joined the British army paid the highest price - among them Dubliner Corporal Ian Malone, from the Irish Guards, who was shot dead by a sniper in Iraq eight years ago.

But the thought of Irish men fighting for the crown is too much for some, especially those like Sean Whelan, the chairman of the National Graves Association - in the Republic, it's a non-party republican organisation that looks after the graves of what it calls the patriot dead.

"We'd be opposed to Irish men joining the crown forces while crown forces remain in partial occupation of our country," he said.

"In many countries in the world it's actually an offence to be in the forces of another country. And we believe that should be the case here."

Many of the giants of Irish history are buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin.

They include Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera and more recently members of the different IRA factions.

Image caption The headstone of Sergeant Patrick Dunne

Side by side lie the graves of Sgt Patrick Dunne of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in 1916 in his home city from wounds he got at Galipoli in Turkey in the First World War and beside him Volunteer Edward Ennis, who died in the Easter Rising.

They are two young Dubliners who, though they didn't know it, lie on different sides of Irish history.

Shane MacThomais, the historian at the cemetery said death is the great leveller.

"No matter what you did in life, or believed, sooner or later you end up in the ground and it's left to the people who come after you to remember you in a certain way.

"They can highlight the good or bad parts. So, the survivors always get to choose how the person is reflected," he said.

And history is usually at least initially written by the winners.

Sometimes it takes something like a royal visit to acknowledge officially the military sacrifice on all sides in an attempt to heal the wounds of history.