Charlie Flanagan: We must acknowledge British soldiers killed in the Rising

Republic owes it itself to engage with history in all of its complexity and nuance

Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin. There are 613 Commonwealth burials of the 1914-1918 war including soldiers killed during the Rising

Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin. There are 613 Commonwealth burials of the 1914-1918 war including soldiers killed during the Rising

 

As many as 125 soldiers of the British army died during the Easter Rising. They came from every part of Ireland, as well as England, Wales, Scotland and further afield. Men from Kilkenny and Armagh fought alongside those from Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire.

Some were veterans of difficult first World War campaigns at Gallipoli and the Western Front; some, like the Sherwood Foresters, were raw recruits – young men who had never before faced an armed enemy. This centenary year has been a unique opportunity to engage with so many different aspects of our island’s history. Throughout the 2016 commemorations, we have sought to ensure that there is a place for all narratives and all perspectives.

The Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme includes events that reflect on how Easter 1916 was experienced by those who participated in, and were affected by, the Rising; not only the experiences of the men and women that mobilised during Easter week, but also those of civilians, of children, of the Irish diaspora and other groups involved in that seminal moment in our country’s path to independence.

An event today at Grangegorman military cemetery in Dublin will mark the deaths of British soldiers in the Rising. It will include a solemn wreath-laying ceremony followed by a minute of silent reflection and a piper’s lament, and the raising of the National Flag to full mast.

Patriotism

Dominick ChilcottDefence Forces

These soldiers came from a broad variety of backgrounds. They are likely to have had different motivations for joining the British army and different understandings of the conflicts in which they were immersed – both in continental Europe and in Ireland.

Some of the Irish among them may have enlisted in the hope of furthering the cause of Irish independence, as so many thousands did in response to the call of the Home Rule party leaders.

Some may have joined with the hope of preserving the Union. Some may have enlisted out of duty, or patriotism, or financial need. Few of them, when enlisting, could have expected that they would find themselves fighting in the streets of Dublin against Irish men and women.

The politics and society of Ireland in 1916 were both complex and in flux. The story of the Neilan brothers in many ways exemplifies this complexity and fluidity. Gerald, a lieutenant with the Royal British Fusiliers, was one of the first soldiers killed in the Rising. His brother Arthur, meanwhile, fought with the Irish Volunteers just a few hundred metres from where his brother fell. Both lives deserve acknowledgment – we should not be selective in how we remember the events of 1916.

We owe it to ourselves to engage with history in all of its complexity and nuance, however inconvenient to our preferred narrative. As Brian Friel memorably wrote: “Confusion is not an ignoble condition.”

Maturity

An important part of the value of this centenary year is the opportunity afforded to challenge and broaden our understanding of what diverse influences contributed to making the Ireland of today. In doing so we also try to imagine a future in which peace, reconciliation and respect for all traditions on this island are irreversibly secured. Charlie Flanagan is Minister for Foreign Affairs

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