A new style of ‘military history from the street’ has challenged entrenched narratives of the First World War in Northern Ireland which have been central to sectarian identities for a century.
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Ireland’s WWI history played a central role in the founding myths of the two states created on the island in 1921, and it continues to inform people’s identities, especially in Northern Ireland and particularly in West Belfast. Yet much of the history told and used for the past century is inaccurate.
Professor Richard Grayson’s research has demonstrated that WWI in Belfast was far less sectarian than previously thought, and as a result, he has contributed to the development of a new shared history in areas that were formerly bitterly divided.
British Academy-funded research from 2005 deployed a new method pioneered by Grayson and not previously used for any part of the UK. Previously, when analysing military service from a geographic area, research examined units known to be connected to that area. Such an approach reinforced West Belfast’s sectarian narrative because it focused on one battalion (the 9th Royal Irish Rifles) formed from the West Belfast Ulster Volunteer Force and part of the 36th (Ulster) Division.
By scouring records such as newspapers, which military historians do not traditionally use, Grayson set out to find ALL service from any part of West Belfast, regardless of the unit served in.
He found that overall service was higher and more diverse than previously thought. Irish and Ulster Volunteers served alongside men from Great Britain. Even UVF members who joined the British army did not all join the 36th Division – around a third served in other units. The resulting book, Belfast Boys (2009), chapters, and articles, showed that Protestants and Catholics often served side-by-side in reality.
Grayson’s methods and findings have been used by Northern Irish community groups committed to an on-going process of peace and reconciliation. He has also contributed significantly to UK-wide commemorative projects in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum, National Archives, BBC, and the Department for Education.
Belfast Boys has changed the local understanding of Belfast’s war and inspired five new murals and five local projects in the city, which have had a lasting impact on the community’s understanding of their past and present.