The fuzzy nostalgia encouraged by Poppy Day facilitates the justification of war
Opinion: We cannot understand Ireland’s participation in the conflict without reference to its relationship with Britain
There is little evidence to suggest they abandoned their antipathy post-war. Veterans would soon confront each other as IRA volunteers, Black and Tans, B-Specials and Free State soldiers.
In Belfast ex-servicemen from nationalist backgrounds would be driven from their homes by loyalists.
Motivations varied for many recruits. The future IRA leader Tom Barry was honest enough to admit that he went “for no other reason than to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man”.
Others were driven by economic imperatives. In August 1914, Jim Larkin’s Irish Worker lamented that “several of our best comrades are leaving the North Wall to fight for the glory of England”. By 1915 perhaps 2,500 transport union members were in British uniform.
There they found that class still mattered. A recruiting officer of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers complained that “men . . . of education and refinement” were reluctant to enlist because “they did not care to be mixed up with . . . corner boys”.
British officials lamented that “this class prejudice is probably much more pronounced in Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom”. But there is little recognition of issues such as this in all the commentary about “shared” sacrifices.
Much of what is claimed about “shared history” in Ireland suggests a commemorative trade-off, whereby nationalists celebrate the Easter Rising, unionists the Somme, and both sides congratulate each other on their maturity.
The issues that divided Irish people in 1914 are glossed over, and the role of Britain virtually ignored.
But we cannot understand participation in the war without reference to Ireland’s relationship with Britain. There was no Irish parliament with a mandate to authorise “our” participation. These life and death decisions were taken by a British government, which stationed 30,000 troops in Ireland and governed ultimately by its ability to deploy them.
It is ironic that many of those who promote the memory of the Great War are critics of Irish republicanism. Yet far more Irish people died between 1914 and 1918 than in any conflict on Irish soil in the last century. By appealing for support for the British war effort, John Redmond and Edward Carson sent many more Irish men out to die than any Irish republican leader.
Large numbers of Irish people never embraced the war and recruitment was declining even before Easter 1916. One of the most significant moments in Ireland’s war came in April 1918 when a general strike ended the threat of conscription.
When remembering the dead of the Great War we should also commemorate those who resisted it and who hoped that a new world would emerge in which such slaughter would never occur again.
Embracing the fuzzy nostalgia of the poppy only encourages those who want to justify that war – and others.
Brian Hanley is a historian and author