There was nervousness as Ireland approached the decade of centenaries of our struggle for independence, and the fraught, tense and difficult period post-independence. That nervousness proved unnecessary. State commemoration and ceremonial of the centenary were honoured to date in a mature, dignified and predominantly inclusive manner.
Sadly, once again, there was an omission. There is no stand-alone national monument, or discrete State ceremonial, commemorating the deaths of many hundreds of the State soldiers in the Civil War. Without them, our democracy could well have been stillborn. These soldiers were members of the national army of a new democratic nation state.
The Civil War of 1922-1923 was condensed by many international comparators as a limited conflict. But the war’s intensity left subsequent decades of divided political and personal loyalties. Thankfully, these tensions have all but subsided. State, political and civic maturity has allowed Irish soldiers who wore another state’s uniform to be rightly remembered, even though the political and military objectives of the armies in which they served were not always in harmony with Ireland’s national values and ideals.
James Langton, in his 2019 book The Forgotten Fallen: the fallen of the Irish Civil War, volume 1, cites some 760 National Army dead, of whom 183 are named on the shamefully neglected National Army memorial in Glasnevin cemetery. Similar numbers of National Army dead are also cited in an article by John Dorney in 2017, titled The Free State’s forgotten soldiers: the National Army monument at Glasnevin, but the exact number of the dead remains estimated.
It commemorates ‘all those Irishmen and Irishwomen who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations’. This citation is a most Irish solution to an Irish problem
The National Day of Commemoration each July does not justly or appropriately honour National Army soldiers who died in the service of the State at its inception (the National Army became the Defence Forces by the Temporary Provisions Act of 1923). It commemorates “all those Irishmen and Irishwomen who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations”. This citation is a most Irish solution to an Irish problem. In trying to be inclusive it omits to singularly acclaim those Irish men who fought and died on behalf of the State in 1922-1923. They have been airbrushed from memory. It also omits to recognise Defence Forces personnel who served and continue to serve with Nato, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The Defence Forces provided flag/firing parties for the burials of old IRA personnel until their numbers depleted in the 1990s. Memorials to IRA volunteers rightfully dot our countryside. This was proper official recognition of their place in our State institutional memory. Erasing the memory of National Army deaths in the Civil War compounds the tragedy of the loss of these fallen. Denying the rightful place of these soldiers in institutional memory became a convenience in post-independence reconciliation, an early indicator of our Defence Forces’ marginalisation in the State.
Throughout the 20th century, the commemoration by the State of the service of Irish men and women in British forces was muted. But this has now changed and changed for the better. Since 1922, Irish citizens fought under many flags of foreign armies. Why not commemorate those who died serving in our own armed forces on Irish soil while simultaneously commemorating the Irish in other armies, most notably, but not exclusively, British forces? Those who died, on “the government side” in 1922-1923 have been effectively forgotten, even as the decade of centenaries concludes. What does this say about the status of the Defence Forces in the State and its national culture of commemoration?
The memorial does not display the names of those who died in separate conflicts. It is incomplete
The Defence Forces are equally culpable in neglecting to appropriately commemorate fallen Irish soldiers on home soil. The national memorial to the Defence Forces on Merrion Square, An Dún Cuimhneacháin, commemorates Irish soldiers who “died serving the state”. The memorial does not correctly commemorate those soldiers who died in the Civil War. The memorial does not display the names of those who died in separate conflicts. It is incomplete. The Defence Forces have no full roll of honour of National Army/Defence Forces members who died in service since independence. It has an overseas roll of honour but not a complete roll, including its dead from the Civil War period.
The decade of centenaries is not yet over. It is overdue to right this 100-year-old wrong. The anniversary of the formation of the Defence Forces’ antecedent, the Irish Volunteers, occurs each November 25th. Beginning on November 25th, 2022, a dignified commemoration in their memory should take place at the National Army memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery and subsequently at a dedicated memorial to them should be built. Defence Forces veterans could perhaps organise the ceremony honouring their comrades who fell in the Civil War, naming it “Respect and loyalty for the forgotten”.
Ger Aherne is a retired brigadier general