Time for Ireland to remember those who lost their lives in first World War

Opinion: How was the Great War forgotten by so many for so long?

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 00:01

One of the most telling contributions to what was a relatively unimpressive performance by Irish historians on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising came from a medievalist, Prof FX Martin. He reminded us that for every volunteer in the 1916 Rising, there were 16 Irish nationalists serving in the trenches.

Outside Northern Ireland, he suggested, it was “difficult to find men and women who will acknowledge that they are children of the men who were serving during 1916 in the British army, the RIC, the DMP, and Redmond’s Irish National Volunteers”. This, Martin termed the “Great Oblivion”, a case of “national amnesia”. In contrast he noted how many claimed a family connection with the men who rose in 1916 “or at least assert that a grandfather was in the IRB.” During the 1920s, he wrote, it had been “a current witticism that the GPO would need to be four times its size in order to hold all who claimed to have fought there during Easter Week”.

Martin published that article in 1967. The outbreak of the Northern Troubles soon afterwards resulted in a further marginalisation of the role which the Great War had played in Ireland. Nowhere was this more underlined than by the period of philistine neglect of the Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge dedicated to those who had died in the war. Horses grazed there and the memorial was vandalised and defaced.

And how does one explain how an organisation that thinks itself republican planned to target a war memorial in Enniskillen in 1987? Bomb it in the middle of a remembrance Sunday gathering of the relatives of those who it honours? Happily, the Edwin Lutyens memorial at Islandbridge has since been restored and the Enniskillen memorial has witnessed southern leaders joining in the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies.

The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War provides an opportunity to emphasise its extraordinary impact on Ireland. But commemoration is different from history. It remains the historian’s task to analyse the past with as open a mind as possible.

Sean O’Faolain once wrote that among the challenges facing Irish politicians was “what to do with our lovely Past”. Today’s answer might be to try to understand it while seeking complexity rather than simplicity. Perhaps the avalanche of journalism, broadcasting and books to mark the centenaries of the 1912-1923 period will have the effect of making that complexity more widely understood.

But we should also remember that compared with so much of the rest of the world, the number of deaths in Ireland from war or civil strife during the past 100 years is but a fraction of those endured elsewhere. Within Ireland we have had a comparatively peaceful 100 years – all the more reason why we should remember our largest casualty list, those Irish who lost their lives abroad during the Great War.

Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. He presents The Forgotten War? Ireland and World War 1 on RTÉ One television on August 5th, at 10.35pm.

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