The approach to Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, Ireland, is immediately a postcard. Manicured forest, ancient castle, gorgeously mirrored in a pristine lake. I visited there a quarter of a century ago when it was a Benedictine boarding school. I fell in love with the beauty of Ireland, and came away knowing the country had me for life.
So it was too with Turtle Bunbury’s book “The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War”. The popular Irish historian jumps straight to the chase, that the Irish were embedded deep in the First World War from beginning to end. He reflects the story so effortlessly with genuinely passionate research, that you finish every page loving it and wanting more.
The Irish Convent at Ypres, Belgium, was in the direct firing line when hostilities began. With guns pounding in the distance, the 84-year-old Lady Abbess from Wexford prayed aloud for all to hear: “Dear St Patrick … please chase the Germans out of Belgium.” The nuns escaped and today their flag hangs in Kylemore Abbey. I needed to read more.
Turtle (so named because he’s the third son, “tertius” in Latin) promptly offers an answer to the big burning question. Why did so many Irishmen fight in the Great War only to be forgotten. Dubliner Tom Kettle is representative. He witnessed the first German atrocities of the war, and formed the opinion that until “Prussian barbarity” was defeated, his yearned-for Irish home rule would be impossible. So Kettle, and hundreds of thousands like him, joined the British Army to save civilisation. The path to Irish independence turned, however, and the Irishmen of the Great War were purged from national consciousness.
Turtle suggests an explanation for that too. The Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916 was forcibly quashed by the British Army. Tom Barry from Kerry symbolises the conflict of so many Irishmen in the Great War. He questioned how the same army he was fighting for, could so ruthlessly fire on his people. Barry went on to become one of the most prominent guerrilla leaders in the Irish War of Independence.
The book introduces many amazing characters. There’s Donegal-born Louis Lipsett who somehow discovered that urine protected against chlorine gas. And Monaghan-born Cecil Parkes who was the greatest all-round sportsman in Irish history. In truth he was probably one of the greatest sportsmen in the world. And the biggest triumphant truth of all. The war could not have been won without the oil of the richest man in the world, Knox D’Arcy, whose father was from Mayo.
Don’t be afraid of the world and Irish history, there’s no political agenda. This is a solemnly must-have book, beautifully researched, wonderfully illustrated, and easily read. Like the Turks rubbing their eyes in disbelief as the British landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula, you’ll be wondering why you haven’t read these terrific tales before. You’ll love it and be wanting more from the third son Turtle.
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