Sacrifice of Irishmen who died in first World War marked by President
Opinion: ‘A republic includes all of the experiences and all of the vulnerabilities of all of its citizens’ – Michael D Higgins
‘President Higgins was escorted to the graves of a number of Irish soldiers and later laid at the obelisk a floral tribute with the Irish Tricolour entwined to commemorate all who are buried there.’ Above, from left, President Higgins; the president of Germany Joachim Guack; the Duke of Cambridge; British prime minister David Cameron and King Philippe of Belgium at a ceremony at Mons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the first World War. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
The presence of President Higgins at ceremonies in Liege and Mons this week to mark the beginning of the first World War was an appropriate recognition by this State of the sacrifice made by the tens of thousands of Irish men who died in that war.
More importantly, it represented a reaching out to all of the traditions on the island of Ireland and the various varieties of Irishness that go to make up this country. For far too long a narrow, constricting definition of Irishness stifled an inclusive remembrance of the past, with those who didn’t fit that definition feeling obliged to remain silent about their family histories and in some cases even deny them.
Thankfully that day has passed, although some letters to The Irish Times this week show that there are still people who cling to a warped version of national identity that defines itself purely by hostility to our nearest neighbour.
The President, who has always expressed pride in his family’s republican tradition, summed up why it was important to commemorate the Irish dead of the first World War. “My definition of a republic is a republic that includes all of the experiences and all of the vulnerabilities of all of its citizens.”
The Irish involvement in the first World War reflected the complex and often contradictory currents that led to independence. Those currents were reflected in individual families as well as across society. One instance was the Kent family of Clonliffe Road in Dublin.
Executed after Rising James Kent was an Irish-speaking RIC constable who passed on his love of the language to his son Edward. Edward became politically active, adopted the Irish form of his name and as Eamon Ceannt was one of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. He was executed after the Rising. His older brother William retained his original surname and joined the British army as a regular soldier during the Boer War.
Sgt Maj William Kent of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers later served in the first World War and was killed at Arras in 1917.
The complexity of the Kent family history reflects that of the country but, because of the way events turned out, it was for far too long only possible to commemorate one strand of our history.
It is only a little over two decades ago that then taoiseach Charles Haughey prevented president Patrick Hillery from accepting an invitation to attend the annual remembrance ceremony organised by the British Legion at St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Since then the atmosphere has been transformed with, presidents Robinson and McAleese playing a very important role in bringing that about.
Irish people now feel comfortable about honouring their relatives who died in the first World War. As the centenary of the war approached, the graves of many of the Irish dead have been visited by relatives for the first time in almost a century.