Lest we forget: commemorating the events of 1918

The pivotal place of 1918 in European and Irish history will make 2018 a busy centenary

A meeting in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, to protest against the extension of conscription to Ireland. Photograph: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

A meeting in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, to protest against the extension of conscription to Ireland. Photograph: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

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One hundred years ago the first World War ended and Ireland embarked on a course of action that led rapidly to the independent Irish State. After a relatively quiet 2017 the decade of centenaries will be marked by a series of public events in 2018 reflecting this pivotal year in Irish and world history.

Although 1918 saw the end of what was then the bloodiest war in history, it was also the beginning of another phase of conflict. Two events occurred that have profound implications to this day. The armistice of November 11th ended the first World War. The defeat of the Central Powers – primarily Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – led to the postwar settlement, and out of that settlement arose many states, including Ireland.

The armistice was followed on December 14th by the British general election, known as the khaki election because of the number of soldiers who took part.

It was also the most significant election in Irish history. Nationalist Ireland finally turned its back on British rule and the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had sought home rule for Ireland within the British Empire.

Nationalists voted by a margin of two to one in favour of Sinn Féin, which advocated an independent Irish state and an abstentionist policy at Westminster. The landmark result was achieved not only as a result of the backlash against British reaction to the Easter Rising but also by the conscription crisis of April 1918, which united all sides of nationalist opinion in opposition. The attempt by the British to introduce conscription in Ireland following the hideous losses caused by the German Spring Offensive of March 1918 led to a general strike here on April 23rd.

Strike centenary

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is already involved in drawing up plans to mark the centenary of the strike, which will be announced in the new year.

Its historical adviser Pádraig Yeates says the conscription crisis was significant in hardening Irish public opinion against British rule. “The strike is the biggest event that took place in Ireland in 1918 after the general election. Conscription set the seal on the ascendency of Sinn Féin,” he says. “Until then they won a series of byelections, but it was by no means certain that constitutional nationalism would not be a force at the end of 1918. It was conscription that made the difference.”

This 1918 general-election result was achieved on the back of a much-expanded franchise. For the first time all men over 21 were allowed the vote – and women got the vote for the first time, albeit only those over the age of 30 who met a property qualification.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 grew out of the anomaly that many of the millions of men who fought in the trenches for Britain were denied a vote at home. It also marked the end of the long struggle for female suffrage.

The act expanded the electorate threefold and had profound implications in Ireland, where a much younger, radicalised electorate rejected the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had dominated Irish politics since 1870.

RTÉ will mark the centenary of the election with a results programme as if it were a broadcast from 100 years ago.

The granting of the vote and the election of the first woman MP, Constance Markievicz, will be marked by a year-long series of events in Ireland and Britain.

The Irish end will be co-ordinated by Votáil 100, set up by Oireachtas members to mark the centenary of the vote for women.

It will begin on February 1st with a conference at the Royal Irish Academy, coinciding with the month the Representation of the People Act 1918 became law.

In February a group of TDs and Senators will travel to London to present a portrait of Markievicz to the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Ironically, Markievicz did what she could to overthrow British rule in Ireland and refused to take her seat at Westminster.

There will be a public-speaking competition for secondary schools on the theme of suffrage, with a group of finalists giving a presentation in the Seanad chamber in April. An exhibition on the theme of women in politics will be also staged at Leinster House that month.

Votáil 100’s chairwoman, Senator Ivana Bacik, says the struggle for equal representation in politics for women is still relevant a century on. “It reminds us how relatively recently Irish women achieved the right to vote in Ireland and how much still needs to be done in relation to women’s representation in politics.

“One of the things that we will be doing in terms of women’s representation is reflecting on how low the representation is, with just 22 per cent of our TDs women despite an increase in the 2016 election.”

John Redmond

John Redmond never lived to see the demise of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which he had led since 1900. He died broken in mind and spirit on March 6th, 1918, at the age of 61, after a routine operation in London.

The centenary of his death will be marked by State ceremonies in Dublin and in the other places with which he was most associated: Wexford, where he was born, and Waterford, which he represented as an MP for 27 years.

The Royal Irish Academy will mark it, too, with the publication of Judging Redmond and Carson, a comparative analysis by Prof Alvin Jackson of these two contrasting behemoths of Irish nationalism and unionism.

The RIA will also host a symposium, organised by the National University of Ireland, on the legacies of Redmond and his party. Despite his great achievement in getting home rule on to the statute books, Redmond also encouraged Irishmen to join the British army during the first World War, and opposed the Easter Rising.

Dr Maurice Manning, the chairman of the expert advisory group on commemorations, says the centenary of Redmond’s death is the appropriate time to assess his contribution to Irish life. “Clearly in 2016, 1916 was the dominant story. The death of Redmond brings that particular chapter to a close.”

Redmond’s tomb, at St John’s Cemetery in Wexford, is being renovated, and the town council is organising a ceremony to mark his death on Sunday, March 4th.

The Irish who fought in the first World War will be remembered at events at home and abroad in 2018. The government of Flanders has plans to open a memorial garden in Dublin for the 13,000 Irish who died in that part of Belgium during the war.

In October next year the people of Herlies, outside Lille in northern France, will open a memorial park to the men from the Royal Irish Regiment who were slaughtered at the Battle of Le Pilly in October 1914.

RMS Leinster

One of the biggest first World War commemorations will mark the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Leinster, on October 10th, 1918, off Kish Bank Lighthouse. The mailboat was struck by torpedoes from a German U-boat, with the loss of at least 501 lives. More Irish died on the Leinster than on the Titanic or the Lusitania, but it has been overlooked, coming as it did towards the end of the war.

An image of RMS Leinster, which was sunk by a German torpedo off Dun Laoghaire in October 1918. Photograph: Phillip Lecane/PA Wire
An image of RMS Leinster, which was sunk by a German torpedo off Dun Laoghaire in October 1918. Photograph: Phillip Lecane/PA Wire

Its centenary has already been marked with the publication of The Last Voyage of the Leinster by the Mail Boat Leinster Centenary Committee.

The National Maritime Museum, in Dún Laoghaire, is working on plans with Holyhead Maritime Museum, at the other end of the mailboat’s route, to mark the centenary. An Post is expected to remember the 21 mail sorters who drowned when the ship was torpedoed.

Plans to mark the centenary of the armistice in Ireland are at an early stage. In the UK the moment when the guns fell silent, at 11am on November 11th, 1918, will be marked 100 years on by the ringing of the bells of 1,400 churches and cathedrals.

The new year sees the start of the second half of the Decade of Centenaries, which will focus mostly on the War of Independence and the Civil War, which ended in May 1923.

Many of the forthcoming centenaries will be marking atrocities carried out not just by the British but also by the Irish on each other.

A public consultation launched by Heather Humphreys when she was minister for heritage will plot a way forward to mark these tricky centenaries.

One future event is confirmed. The State will mark its centenary on December 6th, 2022 – 100 years to the day after the the Irish Free State was established.

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