The Diggers and the IRA, by Kerry Casey.

//The Diggers and the IRA, by Kerry Casey.

By Kerry Casey.

G’day. I am doing a Masters in English at the Australian defence force Academy but my subject is History – or perhaps I should say: historical. It is a story that has never been told. It is about a number of Australian soldiers in World War 1 who went on leave to Ireland and did not return – some not for some time, others never. Australian soldiers who, after fighting alongside the British in the Middle East and Europe, found themselves in Ireland fighting with the Irish Republican Army against Britain.

My original Proposal was to write a biography of my one of my grandfathers, Australian born of Irish parents, Cornelius Patrick Casey, AKA

[1] No 20 Corporal Patrick Cornelius Casey, Military Medal, 13th Battalion. His experience provided me with the template to read the 5,865 service records in NAA series B2455: Irish born men and women who enlisted in the AIF.[2]

At the outbreak war, Australia is commonly described as more unified than at any time in our history as men clamoured to enlist for King and Country, to fight for freedom or just to get a gun and have a go.  Yet 1 in 4 of those Australians was of Irish descent.

On 30 September 1914, just 12 days after Britain had promised Home Rule to Ireland once the war was over, Cornelius Patrick Casey enlisted at Randwick Racecourse. On page two of the Attestation Papers every soldier signed on joining the AIF there is the OATH TO BE TAKEN BY PERSONS BEING ENLISTED

I … swear that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King[3] in the Australian Imperial Force … and that I will resist His Majesty’s enemies and cause His Majesty’s peace to be kept and maintained;

Underneath, on Con’s, is the signature CP Casey but the “C” stands apart like an afterthought or a later addition in a different hand, a sign that Con may not have been so loyal to the King. There were 90 Irish born men who, for a variety of reasons, recanted their aliases. Con never did.

So why did a “native born” Australian invert his Christian names? An explanation might be inferred from an observation made by John Lucy of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, one of the first NCOs to be promoted to the officer class in the British Army, that in the officers’ mess  “after dinner, the water was removed from the table, lest anyone pass his glass over it during the loyal toast, signifying that the toast was ‘to the king across the water.’”[4] Also, when Ireland erupted into Civil War after the creation of the Free State in 1922, there were two main sticking points; one of which was signing the Oath of Loyalty to the King. Was Con’s alias the act of a subject person, a way of lying to maintain his honesty?

After enlistment, Con’s story is classic Digger. He landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 where he was twice wounded, he refused the offer of repatriation and, under Lieutenant Harry Murray (who would became Australia’s most decorated soldier), was in the very last unit of the Evacuation. A Diehard.

Subsequent to his wounds on Gallipoli, Con retrained as a stretcher bearer and in the next year on the Western Front was twice Mentioned in Dispatches and twice nominated for the Distinguished Conduct Medal[5] before being awarded the Military Medal for the Battle of Messines in June 1917.  During that time, he saw action at Pozieres, Mouquet Farm, through the Somme Winter, at Stormy Trench and at Bullecourt. He had lost part of a finger and part of his eyesight, had toes amputated from trench foot, his lungs and heart damaged from gas and his back wrecked through carrying men through Somme mud. He had also been twice promoted so that by August 1917 he was a Corporal and head of the 4th Brigade stretcher bearers. Then, on 12 August 1917, Con went on leave to Ireland

There, according to Colonel John Williams, CO APC[6] London, there were “no food, lighting, or drink restrictions, and a soldier could have a much better time than he could have in any town in England. (It was, [he added]) a perfect haven for absentees and deserters.”[7] Con stayed mostly at the family farm in Glenanaar in East Limerick. His uncle Patrick, the head of the house, was a Sergeant in the Irish Volunteers and his aunts were active in the women’s paramilitary, known as the Cumann na mBan. Ireland at the time was recovering from the shock of Easter 1916 and the executions and mass deportations that followed it and fighting, as were Australians at home, against Conscription.

Con was not the only Digger overstaying his leave. In 1918, at the request of the British Army in Ireland, Colonel Williams travelled throughout the country conducting a study on the feasibility of setting up APC posts in Ireland. In his report of 18 April 1918, RE VISIT OF A.P.M., A.I.F DEPOTS IN U.K. TO IRELAND, Williams concluded that, although, as the British had insisted, there were many Diggers AWL in Ireland who were actively assisted by the local people and Sinn Fein, there was no way his men could have the cultural sensitivity to operate in such a volatile situation. Whilst he talked about what the Irish were doing for the Diggers, he at no time assayed what the Australians were doing for them – the assumption being, I suppose, that they were drifters, deserters, deadbeats and cowards.

Not all Irish Diggers returned to Australia. One, Tipperary born, 2417 James Gorman of the 55th Battalion AIF[8] went AWL[9] when discharged from Camberwell Hospital in England on 30th October 1917. He became Lieutenant in his home town, Hollyford Company of the South Tipperary Brigade of the IRA and was active up until the Truce training Volunteers, assisting in the Knocklong Rescue and taking leading parts in barracks attacks at Hollyford, Cappawhite and Rearcross and in the Thomastown Ambush. Soldier, publican, poet, adventurer, dancer and musician, Jim was described by both Ernie O’Malley[10] and Dan Breen[11] and in numerous Witness Statements collected in BMH Dublin as iconic Digger: sunbrowned, with lined and leathery skin, a laconic sense of humour, cool under pressure, full of initiative and a crack shot. In 1924, after the Civil War in which he did not participate, Jim emigrated to the USA where his 3 sons served in the Army in WW2, one paying the ultimate price.

Gorman was one 64 Irish born men discharged for DESERTION when the AIF was clearing the books on 1 April 1920 (is that date meaningful?). 168 others were Discharged when demobilised in England. A large number, like my grandfather, had extended periods AWL in Ireland but returned to Australia. Dublin born 818 Driver John O’Neill was discharged in Australia in December 1919 then returned to Ireland where, as his service record states, he was “killed in an ambush on 6 March 1921.” Tipperary born 22529 Gunner Michael McGrath 23 Howitzer Bde was a casualty of the Civil War. He was discharged in England and re-emerges as a Lieutenant in the Clonmel Company on the Republican side. He died in custody after capture by Free State Army in May 1923.

Just as the reputation for larrikinism and indiscipline out of the line is entrenched as a defining part of the Digger myth, so was it a characteristic of the Irish born Digger but perhaps even moreso suggesting that the red tabbed staff officers may have been just a little too British for them. There are countless incidences of AWL and insubordination. A couple of anecdotes:

  • 3761 Pte Philip Bolger 29 Battalion was court martialled for “Using disloyal words regarding the soverign”
  • 3409 Patrick Joseph Golden 9/31 Bn was Court Martialled for insubordinate language & threatening violence upon 2nd Lieut Strachan  “You are only a Scotch bastard and require fucking, and I will do it (for you).”
  • 34 Private William  RYAN of the 8 Bde MGCo at COI 6/11/16 On October 5th 1916 had to explain an injury he received while on leave at the family home in Waterford. “One day I was talking to my father, I believe it was the 8th of October 1916, about the Sinn Fein movement and was excited. It was just after dinner and we were still sitting at table. I had a knife in my hand. To emphasise what I was saying, I brought my hand holding the knife down with a bang on the table and in so doing, struck my other hand which was resting on the table with the knife, cutting it severely.

At his Court Martial at AIF Headquarters in Horseferry Road, London 11 November 1919, Con did not speak in his defence. There were two Statements of Mitigation. One, from his Battalion CO now OIC Repatriation, Major General J.M.A Durrant, stated

… during his service with the unit his conduct was exemplary. He was distinguished for courage and his fearless example; a splendid leader and one of the bravest men I have seen in action.

The other after detailing his record of service added that

… suffering from a grievance which he does not choose to disclose, he went AWL and thus spoiled one of the finest records of any soldier who ever left Australia.

Con was held prisoner at Lewes Detention Barracks, reduced to the rank of Private and his sentence was twice reducedfrom 12 months to 6 then till date of embarkation.

Con’s silence at his Court martial is emblematic of the silence that has enshrouded this issue for almost a century. The Irish in their recounts of the War of Independence were careful not to name anyone who returned to England or any of the Commonwealth countries for fear of  the reach of the tentacles of Empire. For those, like my grandfather, who returned to Australia, it meant living a double life and never telling the story of their days in Ireland and this was easily masked under the common reticence to talk about the war. It was a confirmation of another duality: their identities as both Australian and Irish. A duality that would not be celebrated till after their deaths when Australia would finally acknowledge what it had always tried, in wilful ignorance of human nature, to suppress, that human beings can not be forced to forget who they are, that ours is a multicultural society and our cultural richness lies in our diversity and in the diversity of stories that flow from this.

In this Introduction to the magnificent history of Australia in WW1, the official historian Charles Bean, while trying to explain the extraordinary response to the outbreak of war, states that

few Australians … were fully acquainted with the philosophy underlying the Prussian attitude. But its visible results were well known to them all.… they had read of the unconscionable principles of the military bureaucracy of Prussia, and their instinct for freedom revolted against its pompous hectoring, its cynical intrigue, its tyrannous oppressions in time of peace, its ugly menace in times of war. They therefore exalted the struggle into one which should “save the world for democracy,” establish the sanctity of treaties, and, if possible, inaugurate a reign of justice and rid the world of the whole system of war[12].

Substitute “few” with “Irish” and “Prussia” with British and the attitude underlying the decision of those Australian soldiers of Irish descent who felt it more important to fight for the freedom of their ancestral homeland than to continue with the British Army show how central was their action to the belief systems developing in the antipodes. These men have been forgotten by history. How many of them there were and from which of the allied countries they came is still unknown. Now that they are dead, their stories can at last be told.


[1] Also known as- The use of alaises was a phenomenon of massive proportions in the Australian Army.

[2] Jeff Kildea in Anzac and Ireland estimates the number to have been just over 6,600. Pp.249-250 fn2

[4] As cited in Tom Johnstone Orange, Green and Khaki, The story of the Irish Regiments in the Great War, 1914 – 1918.

[6] Australian Provost Corps (the Military Police)

[7] Confidential Report RE VISIT OF A.P.M., A.I.F. DEPOTS IN U.K. TO IRELAND. 18/04/1918

[8] Australian Imperial Force

[9] Absent Without Leave

[10] On Another Man’s Wound and Raids and Rallies.

[11] Dan Breen My Fight for Irish Freedom

[12] C.E.W. Bean, ‘The Story of Anzac’, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 12 vols (Angus & Robertson), 1: xlvii
By | 2017-09-13T15:09:49+00:00 February 7th, 2012|Individual Accounts Irish Volunteers 1913-1923|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Hugh F.X. Keane March 22, 2013 at 6:25 am

    There was probably another factor as to why some Diggers chose Ireland as a safe haven from the war. In WW1 Australia, to its credit, was the only British/Dominion country that refused to shoot soldiers convicted of desertion so there was no great mischief in going AWOL. Also Ireland would have been a more attractive country to hide away in given the language, than war-torn Belgium and France. By the way, the term ‘Digger’ was misappropriated by the Australians from the New Zealand tunnellers after Gallipoli but that is, as they say, another story!…. Cheers

  2. christopher mooney March 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    This is a very interesting story. I don’t doubt that there were some ‘diggers’ who felt strongly enough for the cause of Irish independence to take a hand in the fight against the British forces. What I found on emigrating to Australia in the early 1960s was a generally warm feeling towards the Irish among Australian working people and a vague sympathy for the cause of Ireland against British bullying. That was no more than you’d expect from a people who tend to ‘barrack’ for the underdog and whose feelings towards England have always been a bit ambiguous. But very few Australian Irish whom I met had more than a vague understanding of the issues involved or much interest. One could still encounter talk of ‘Micks’ and ‘the green machine’ as having too much influence in politics and government, but it was said more in a teasing manner than with any real bitterness.

    My own take on the subject is that the majority of the old ‘Irish’ element in Australian society either lost interest or just preferred to forget Ireland’s problems during and after World War I when, by their mutual sacrifice for King and empire, they had finally succeeded in carving out a legitimate place within mainstream Australian society, however grudgingly it was conceded in some quarters. The Anzacs were perhaps more formally represented on the British side in the Easter Rising of 1916? See http://www.awm.gov.au/journal/j39/kildea.asp

  3. Tommy Mooney March 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Good on ya mate, get the story out there before it is too late !

  4. Patrick Gilford February 20, 2012 at 7:21 am

    What a great discovery, very interesting read and well done.

    • Kerry Casey February 21, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      Thanks m8. When I delivered the paper one Professor of dual Irish and Australian nationality commented that it was so Irish. What I didn’t say was “but that’s the whole point, it’s Australian.”

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