Screening of War for Big Words, in a Small Place, Coleraine Town Hall, June 2015.


Coleraine Borough and the First World War

Although it was a conflict between vast Empires in far-off places, the First World War was neither remote nor removed from ordinary people. It was a war for Big Words – King, Country, Freedom, Duty, Democracy, Liberty and Civilisation¹. Even in a small place like Coleraine, these Big Words resonated. There was almost universal acceptance that Britain’s cause was just and righteous; and that even a small town like Coleraine had a vital part to play in the momentous events unfolding across Europe and the wider world. Coleraine, like other small towns across Ireland, was kept well informed by the press of events in Europe. The reporting was peppered with lurid stories of German atrocities following their invasion of Belgium on 3 August 1914. The German invasion caused a general and heart-felt sense of moral outrage across Britain and Ireland.  

For Irishmen, the war was made even more immediate and urgent because of the issue of Home Rule. On the eve of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in August 1914, two massive volunteer armies faced each other in Ireland. The National Volunteers had been created to safeguard the enactment of Home Rule; the Ulster Volunteers were created to resist it, or secure the exclusion of Ulster at all costs.

As war broke out in Europe and the complex system of alliances toppled the European empires into a general conflict, Ireland teetered on the brink of civil war. The leaders of Irish Nationalism and Unionism, John Redmond and Sir Edward Carson, determined that the future of Ireland would not be won here but on the battlefields of France and elsewhere. The volunteers were first pledged to the defence of Ireland but then urged, as Redmond declared, to go wherever the firing- line extended.

As the volunteers enlisted and were sent to camps in Donegal, army and navy reservists were called up and re-enlisted for three years or for the duration of the war. At the same time, Coleraine men were already fighting in regiments like the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the battles to halt the German advance in Belgium and France.

By the winter of 1914 a ‘Home Front’ had developed with civilians being urged to do their part for their fighting men on land and sea by providing a few home comforts. The Coleraine and Londonderry newspapers took great pride in reporting their availability to soldiers in Flanders. Everywhere, men of recruiting age were urged to join those already fighting.

This installation seeks to capture the heady mix of patriotism, loyalty, enthusiasm and optimism regarding the war that swirled around the streets of Coleraine in 1914. Revealing these histories as they were told through Coleraine and Londonderry newspapers, the images tell the story of how the war efforts in Europe and Britain impacted on the life and times of those living in the Coleraine borough at this time. The images also explore some of the more mundane aspects of life in Coleraine, revealing the wider aspects of cultural life in the borough that went on in spite of the war. In the juxtaposition of the mundane with the monumental, the installation seeks to capture the life and times in the Coleraine borough in the lead up to, and outbreak of the First World War, and thus offers a snapshot of the War for Big Words in this small place.

You can see the screened images here.

¹ Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War, (Cambridge, 2000), p. 10.