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A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall…

Neil Richardson, author of A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall: stories of Irishmen in WWI, discusses how this important book came into being.

The idea for this book first came about while I was still in college in UCD in 2007. I had always known in a sort of peripheral way that my great-grandfather had fought in the First World War, but, beyond knowing that he had been badly wounded and evacuated, I did not know much more. So, that year, I managed to get a copy of his service file and, suddenly, all the facts, figures, dates, places and events linked to his time in the trenches were revealed to me. Family stories suddenly had a context—I could link them to a particular event or time.

I could not get enough of the First World War and was reading everything I could, especially anything to do with Irish involvement. It quickly occurred to me, though, that a series of well-known Irish participants were appearing again and again: Francis Ledwidge, Tom Kettle and—to a lesser extent—Ivone Kirkpatrick. I began to wonder how many untold Irish stories were out there, stories like that of my great-grandfather, who was just one of the estimated 200,000 from the island of Ireland who served in the war. My great-grandfather’s story had been accurately preserved by his family, so I wondered how many other soldiers’ stories were similarly waiting to be uncovered. That is what this book set out to achieve—to gather the stories of the unknown and make them available for anyone to read. So I put out the call by newspaper article and website post and waited. My intention was to gather as many accounts as I could, and then set about researching service files, war diaries, etc. to back up each account. Ultimately, I was contacted by hundreds of families; some stories were brief but fascinating, others revealed buried nuggets of Irish First World War history that had never before appeared in print, plenty were tragic. Within a few months of launching my appeal, I had a precious collection of accounts—in some cases, previously unseen diaries/memoirs or unheard old recordings—in my possession. Following a lengthy archival research period that followed, these became A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall: stories of Irishmen in WWI.

When the book was published in autumn 2010, I was blown away by the reaction. Regional newspapers and news websites ran articles about the local soldiers from the book. It was reviewed widely and favourably, most notably by Prof. Richard Grayson of Goldsmith’s College London, himself a well-known author on the First World War. Then I learned that the book had been nominated for the Argosy Non-fiction Book of the Year Award at the 2010 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. I was absolutely blown away by this development, and also extremely humbled when I saw the competition for the award; the other authors in my category were Ryan Tubridy, Fintan O’Toole, Matt Cooper, Shane Ross and Nick Webb, and Michael Murphy. I never expected to stand a chance of winning, and to this day I still cannot believe that I did. I would love to think that this was due to Ireland’s newfound willingness to remember its forgotten First World War veterans.

In the ten years that followed, it was great to see so many new publications released on the subject of Irish involvement in the First World War. Coupled with the various commemorations that took place from 2014 to 2018, it can be said that Ireland really has now come to terms with the involvement of Irish soldiers, sailors and aircrew during the conflict. In many ways, I am delighted that the O’Brien Press chose to release a ten-year-anniversary edition now. During the commemorative period, Ireland re-learned so much about the war that had previously been forgotten, thereby giving context for the stories of the ordinary men who entered the trenches. Perhaps now is the best time for those stories to be told and read again, when Ireland really can understand what our grandfathers and great-grandfathers went through over 100 years ago.

The ten-year-anniversary edition of A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall is published by the O’Brien Press. It is available now in all good bookshops and at www.obrien.ie.