Redmond’s volunteers died for Ireland not the King

Irish governments and heads of state have blown hot and cold about attending commemorations

The cross at Wytschaete military cemetery which remembers the Irish who died in the liberation of the village during the Battle of Messines Ridge in June 1917. Ronan McGreevy Flanders

The cross at Wytschaete military cemetery which remembers the Irish who died in the liberation of the village during the Battle of Messines Ridge in June 1917. Ronan McGreevy Flanders

 

The Irish who answered John Redmond’s call to fight in the First World War differed from others who joined the British army before and since in that they served at the bidding of a democratically elected Irish national leader. For this reason those who died in that war are entitled to be regarded as having died for Ireland.

This has never been adequately recognised in their commemoration in this country.

The main commemoration since the 1920s has been undertaken by the Royal British Legion, which does admirable work caring for the war veterans of every creed. The Legion is, however, closely linked with the British State, its monarchy and armed forces and its commemoration is part of a general British commemoration of which the poppy is the symbol.

This is off-putting to those who are reluctant to celebrate the British State and its armed forces as their own. Its express evocation of the dead sacrificing themselves for “King and Country” does not fit the allegiances of the many Irish who saw themselves as fighting as allies of Britain rather than as part of it.

Irish governments and heads of state have blown hot and cold about attending these commemorations. Historically, their reluctance was linked successively to the disapproval among political leaders of independent Ireland of Redmond’s action, the protection of our neutrality in the Second World War and some disgraceful actions of the British Army in Northern Ireland since 1969

In recent decades, spurred on by the peace process in Northern Ireland, presidents and ministers have become a regular presence at these commemorations. But they have taken care to distance themselves from the central players by not having poppies in the wreath they lay.

Given that former beligerants now regularly attend one another’s commemorations this attendance is no big deal. It is certainly not an adequate substitute for a commemoration undertaken by the State.

The National Day of Commemoration each July instituted in the 1990s was a step towards addressing the omission by commemorating all the Irish who died in past wars or in the service of the United Nations. But it does less than justice to the Irish who went to the First World War to lump them in with all the Irish who died in the service of other countries.

Going as they did at the direction of the Irish national leader whose action commanded general support at the time, the Irish who perished in the First World War are in a special category, as entitled to be regarded as having died for Ireland as any who later died in the service of the Irish Army. Their commemoration by our State should have acknowledged this.

A feature of commemoration services, including the main one at St Patrick’s Cathedral, is that they are largely if not entirely confined to Protestant churches. Although in recent decades well attended by Roman Catholics, these commemorations have inevitably tended to reflect the ethos and traditions of Ireland’s Protestant community.

There were some commemorations in the Catholic Church of the dead of the First World War in the 1920s but they faded away for reasons that are not clear but probably reflected a disinclination among the bishops and clergy to confront the strident nationalism of our new rulers, especially after Fianna Fail came to power in 1932.

This was inexcusable. Appalled by the atrocities of the German army in Catholic Belgium in 1914, the clergy had been to the fore in encouraging recruitment. Catholic chaplains were numbered among the most heroic figures of the war. The Catholic Church could have provided a commemoration that respected the nationalist allegiance of many of the Irish dead. Looking back on the century of commemoration that culminates this year theirs is arguably an even greater failure in doing justice to the Irish who answered Redmond’s call than that of the Irish State.

Charles Lysaght is a barrister and author

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