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Forgotten by whom? The memory of World War I in Ireland

The war was never forgotten among those who had fought it or those who lost loved ones, writes historian Donal Fallon.

Donal Fallon

IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY, history and folklore can make strange bedfellows. Tales passed down through the ages are believed as gospel, and can even contribute to our sense of identity. Perhaps nowhere is this truer in Dublin than on the terrace of Croke Park. Iconic, Hill 16 stands proudly as an inheritor of Easter Week heroism, the rubble of the GPO beneath the feet of Dubliners.

In reality, Hill 16 was known a century ago as Hill 60, after the last major assault of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. British forces, with many Irishmen in their ranks, endured enormous losses on the so-called Hill 60, located south of Ypres in Belgium, something that was strongly felt across the island of Ireland. The terrace itself opened in 1915, long before the Rising. The name remained into subsequent decades, only changing in the 1930s.

That the terrace of a GAA stadium was named in honour of a British military campaign should not be all that surprising. Brendan Behan, raised in the shadow of Croke Park in Dublin’s north inner-city, remembered the deep cultural memory of British Army service in inner-city Dublin.

This manifested itself, of course, in public houses:

“When the singing got underway, there’d be old fellows climbing up and down Spion Kop til further orders and other men getting fished out of the Battle of Jutland, and while one old fellow would be telling how the Munster’s kicked the football across the German lines at the Battle of the Somme.”

The war was never forgotten among those who had fought it or those whose loved ones had not returned.

The idea that the First World War was somehow forgotten in Ireland is a long-standing myth, something which is at odds with the historic record of significant commemoration and remembrance of the dead of the war by Irish people themselves and by respective governments.

‘Remember the dead, fight for the living’

Post-independence, commemoration of the First World War was an annual routine, drawing significant crowds onto the streets.

Remembrance Sunday 1926 witnessed something in the region of forty thousand people on the streets of Dublin, in scenes that were replicated right across the island. Describing the event, The Irish Times reported that “It would be hard, indeed, to estimate the size of the gathering. It did not, however, number less than forty thousand.

From an early hour, people began to arrive by every kind of vehicle and on foot, and an hour before the ceremony began the wide open space in the Phoenix Park surrounding the Wellington Monument was densely crowded.”

Significant crowds continued to attend Remembrance Sunday events into subsequent decades. Throughout the 1930s in particular, the day had the potential for violence, as Republicans clashed with those partaking in commemorative events, including members of the British Legion and others.

The violence made gardaí uncomfortable, with Colonel Nelligan outlining a belief to the Garda Commissioner that to his mind that 11 November had become “the excuse for a regular military field day for these persons…if the irregulars (a reference to the IRA) adopted these tactics they would be arrested under the Treasonable Offences Act.”

Poppies were commonly sold on the street, and in significant quantities too. In March 1930, at the annual conference of the British Legion in Dublin, it was claimed that Poppy Day had raised £487,272 in the year gone.

Among Republicans, there was an acceptance of the right of people to mourn those who had died in the conflict. Some failed to grasp the meaning of the war, with Republican Frank Ryan denouncing those who partook in the day as “bank clerks and students of Trinity College”, something which greatly overlooked the contribution of working class people to the war effort.

In time, Ryan’s views changed, and in 1934 he participated in an alternative Armistice Day event in Dublin, where wounded and bemedalled ex-soldiers paraded behind a banner proclaiming the need to “remember the dead, fight for the living”. 

World War One - British Empire - The Home Front - London - 1915 London's welcome to Sergeant Michael O'Leary, VC, of the Irish Guards: a poster produced with the aim of boosting enlistment in Ireland during the First World War. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

‘World War I was never forgotten in Ireland’

By comparison to Ryan, Éamon de Valera, as leader of Fianna Fáil, told a League Against Imperialism rally in November 1931 that he was “not unmindful of the comrades who were anxious to honour the memory of their dead companions. But objection was being – and properly – taken to those who on each Armistice Day took the opportunity of indulging in a flagrant display of British Imperialism”. 

When de Valera assumed the office of Taoiseach, he did engage with the meaning of the war to many in a meaningful and inclusive way. It was under a Fianna Fáil government in 1939 that the War memorial gardens at Islandbridge opened, with almost half the total budget for the project coming from the Irish government.

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With its commemorative wording in both English and Irish, Edwin Lutyen’s beautiful commemorative landscape is one of the finest sites of memory on the island of Ireland today. When Leo Varadker wore a poppy in the Dail to much commentary, BBC journalist John Simpson tweeted that “Irish PM Leo Varadkar wears Irish poppy in Dáil. Until recently Irish politicians have tried to ignore big Irish contribution in both wars.”

It is difficult to stand in Lutyen’s impressive gardens and feel this contribution was in any way ‘ignored.’

Questions around commemoration and the First World War in an Irish context have partly originated because of the decision of political leaders like Varadker to wear the poppy, and because of the refusal of other figures in public life to do so, in particular, James McClean.

But we must acknowledge that these symbols of remembrance were always contested, and even among those who participated in the war there was a diversity of opinion with regards remembrance. Some 3,000 veterans of the war, members of the Irish Nationalist Veterans Association, refused to partake in the victory parade following the end of the conflict.

That movement included not only soldiers themselves but those who had lost loved ones, such as the widow of Irish constitutional nationalist leader Tom Kettle, who met his end on the Western Front in 1916. She proclaimed boldly that “the men who went to France have been betrayed”. 

World War I was never forgotten in Ireland. Its meaning and the best way to commemorate it has been hotly debated, but that is another thing entirely.

Increasingly, there is a public interest in the human stories of young men who left home for the trenches of France and Belgium, reflecting a move towards social history more broadly. Men like those from the St Peter’s GAA club in West Belfast, who lost so many men to the carnage that the club itself folded, or men like those reservists called up at the very outbreak of the conflict, having no say in the matter and being thrust into the barbarism of a war without precedent.

It is not about the symbols one chooses to wear or otherwise, the greatest remembrance of the First World War is to learn its lessons and to honour its dead by striving for peace.

Donal Fallon is a historian, writer and broadcaster based in Dublin. 

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