WE ARE FAST approaching the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, an event which had huge implications not just for the future of Europe, but also Ireland as it battled to achieve independence from Britain. The impact of the war spurred on a group of Irish volunteers on Easter week 1916 to seize key positions in Dublin proclaiming Ireland as an independent Republic.
Ever since the executions of the leaders of rising it had been written into Irish folklore that those who took part in the rebellion were no less than patriots of the highest order while those who fought in the trenches in France and Belgium were considered at best misguided or at worst traitors to the cause of Irish freedom.
The lack of any critical analysis about this period in our history has allowed this view to persist to this day as Ireland has not came up with a symbol to properly commemorate those who died in the first world war. Now, a century after famous battles such as the Somme, should we not begin to have as part of our yearly commemorative calendar alongside the Easter rising a day were we remember those Irishmen who gave their lives during the First World War.
Why is it important to now begin a reappraisal of Ireland’s contribution during the war? Well for a long time Irish people have tended to get caught in what I believe is a false choice of supporting the actions of the volunteers of 1916 and the soldiers of World War One. This misconception of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, as a naive fool conned by British government into participating in the war ignores the fact that Nationalist participation much like their Unionist counterparts was in part a strategic move by both sides to further their constitutional ambitions. Also most commentators at the time bet that the war would last no longer than a year. Redmond’s desire to join the British war effort was not born out of a deeply held desire to fight for King and country but rather an attempt to further the cause of home rule and go to the aid of Belgium.
Yet in modern Irish politics it still seems to be unfashionable to even mention Redmond’s name. Since independence we have only had one Taoiseach, John Bruton, that has given any serious acknowledgement to his role in Irish history. The lack of any mention about Redmond in our history only mirrors the lack of acknowledgement for the thirty thousand plus who died during World War One. It should be remembered that most these men signed up to fight for an independent Ireland that they would never live to see.
Embrace the poppy
In 1966, with great fervour Ireland commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of 1916 rising with almost no mention of those who died in World War One. Surely in 2016, we should take a more balanced approach and shift away from this hierarchy of hero’s complex we have gotten ourselves into over this issue. If we have learned anything from the visit of Queen Elizabeth last May where we seen two heads of state standing side by side commemorating the fallen men and women of both the rising and the war, then surely it’s time for Ireland to embrace symbols such as the poppy and loose some of its timidity in commemorating those who as US President, Abraham Lincoln, said at Gettysburg, ‘gave the last full measure of devotion’ to their country.
Those who will express opposition to any form of commemoration in favour of remembering only those who died during the rising should remember that our perception of these events could easily have very different. Had it not been for an overly vengeful response from the British forces in Ireland it is likely that our view of the Easter rising would be as an act of pure folly by a group of overzealous fanatics.
I am not arguing that everybody in Ireland should now burst into frenzied celebration over this country’s role during World War One nor am I arguing that we should belittle the importance of Easter rising but we should make a better attempt to strike a fairer balance in how we commemorate these events. The simple fact is that it is not a case of choosing sides as both groups who fought in 1916 ultimately wanted the same thing they just had different approaches in achieving that aim. We should drop our reticence in commemorating and debating the motives of those who fought for Irish independence during this period in Irish history. In writing this column I hope that this can make some contribution towards opening up this debate.