Dublin's National Library exhibition tells Irish World War One stories

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

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Image source, National Library exhibition
Image caption,
The exhibition tells the story of Irish soldiers during World War One.

The National Library in Dublin, just down the street from the Dáil (Irish parliament), is holding an exhibition on World War One.

The exhibition includes photographs, film, songs and letters.

Four very different stories are featured in the exhibition.

They range from the experiences of the sons of a unionist Anglo-Irish family, to those of an Irish revolutionary who travelled to Germany to try to recruit Irish prisoners of war.

Katherine McSharry, the National Library's head of services, said she hoped visitors leaving would reflect on how they would have acted had they lived between 1914 and 1918.

She said it was a very turbulent time in Irish history.

"What we want to do here at this exhibition, 'World War One: Exploring the Irish Experience' is exactly that," she said.

"To take a look at what's in the National Library's collections and enable those items to help people to understand a little bit about the complex history of the First World War in the Irish context."

The first story featured is that of the then unionist Anglo-Irish Leslie family, nowadays associated with Castle Leslie in County Monaghan.

Shane, the eldest son, was initially disinherited in favour of his younger brother, Norman, when he converted to Catholicism and supported Home Rule.

Shane, who later regained his inheritance, served in the ambulance corps while Norman, an officer, fought and died at the front in 1915.

At the opening of the exhibition Shane Leslie's 98-year-old son, Sir Jack, a World War Two veteran, talked about his uncle Norman.

Image caption,
The exhibition is due to run for three years.

"He was the last officer in the British army to fight a duel and we still have the sword he used," Sir Jack said.

"He was killed by a sniper's bullet through his heart. He kept a journal written in his own hand and we still have that."

The exhibition features a spoken extract of a letter sent by Norman to his family in Monaghan in 1914.

"I saw something, something awful. Two corporals got up and tried to advance their men towards and in front me," he wrote.

"The minute they got up, that damned machinegun at the windmill fired at them again straight over our heads, each man falling down slowly. Only four of the 20 got across ahead of me."

In contrast to Norman Leslie, Michael O'Leary was a soldier from a poor County Cork background.

He had emigrated to Canada but returned to Europe to fight.

"He wins a Victoria Cross on the Western Front in February 1915 and from that point onwards his life is just changed entirely," Nikki Ralston, the exhibition curator, said.

"He becomes literally a poster boy for recruitment in Ireland. He features in posters; he tours the country attending rallies urging other Irish men to serve."

Image caption,
At the opening of the exhibition Shane Leslie's 98-year-old son, Sir Jack, a World War Two veteran, talked about his uncle Norman.

O'Leary survived, but his story was lampooned by the Irish Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw in his play O'Flaherty VC, which was deemed too incendiary and insensitive to be premiered in Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

The exhibition also features some of the letters chaplains sent home to loved ones informing them of soldiers' deaths.

Mary Martin, a wealthy widow in south County Dublin, must have waited anxiously for news and letters from her three children serving.

Two of her sons were soldiers and one of them, Charlie was killed in action. Her daughter Mary worked as a nurse and later went on to establish the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Katherine McSharry says: "Charlie was lost at Salonika. They didn't find out he had died until six months after he went missing."

The fourth and very different story told is that of Joseph Plunkett, an Irish revolutionary who saw the war as an opportunity for Irish independence.

"Joseph would travel to Germany and join with Roger Casement in those efforts to recruit Irish prisoners of war to the cause for independence," Ms Ralston said.

"We have on display the draft declaration in Joseph's own hands - that conversion from a member of the British forces to a member of the Irish Brigade."

The exhibition, which is free to enter, will see several updates between now and when it closes in three years' time.

Image caption,
The exhibition describes what it was like for soldiers during the war.