Ireland and the awkwardness of Remembrance

The curtain has almost been drawn on the Easter commemorations that have been taking place this week across Ireland. These occasions, when those who fought and died in the centuries old struggle for Irish freedom are remembered, are largely attended by supporters of the various Irish republican parties and factions, though in parts of the north a wider audience of nationalists have traditionally attended such gatherings. An official Irish government ceremony was reinstated by Bertie Ahern in 2006 and a much greater programme of events are being planned for the centenary commemoration of the Easter Rising next year.

The Irish government’s recent difficulties over its proposals for commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising are a reminder of the awkwardness associated with remembrance in an Irish context.

For almost two decades now, the prevailing narrative regarding remembrance in an Irish context has focused on the similarly awkward manner with which Ireland has recalled the Irishmen who fought and fell in the World Wars in British uniforms. Yet what has not been highlighted to the same extent is the fact that a similar awkwardness has defined Ireland’s approach to remembering those who have fought and fallen in pursuit of Irish unity.

For a long time, it was argued that the continuation of the IRA’s military campaign post-1969 had created an atmosphere in which people were reluctant to commemorate the Easter Rising and similar episodes in Irish history for fear of inadvertently giving succour to a then active militant republican tradition.

But that was never a convincing argument.

Call it self-loathing, link it to a peculiar post-colonial complex or simply a weariness to invite the past into an ever changing present, but Ireland stands apart from many of the western nations with whom she has a closest affinity in declining to pay homage to its patriot dead in the same manner associated with official remembrance in either the USA or Britain.

Not for Ireland the public holidays to recall Independence nor appreciate Veterans, nor the pomp of November’s Remembrance, with football shirt poppies.

In many ways, that is a good thing.

It suggests an eyes wide open approach to the true face of conflict, understandable given Ireland’s troubled history. The inane platitudes oft associated with remembrance jar anyone with the remotest appreciation of conflict and history. Never is this truer than with reference to the First World War. The notion of this unprecedented slaughter of humanity being in any way associated with freeing small nations, or about men dying so we might be free is a cruel betrayal of the truth.

The history of Ireland informs us that the ‘bad’ guys often win out, and that life proceeds regardless.

The black and white narrative oft-favoured by the victor in a conflict has been shunned in Nationalist Ireland, where the greys of conquest, conflict, partial victories and independence have ensured that a weariness continues to define attitudes to remembrance.

Incidentally, it remains the case that there is almost nothing in Ireland to mark the participation in the US Civil War of tens of thousands of Irish born soldiers, making it by some distance the second largest conflict in terms of Irish casualties behind the First World War. Damian Sheils has pioneered research into Ireland’s involvement in this conflict and has made a compelling case for the sacrifice of the thousands of Irish born men to be formally recognised by the Irish state today.

It is entirely appropriate and fitting that a National programme of events is organised to celebrate and commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising, and that includes across the north of Ireland too.

Indeed, the time has long since past for unionism to find a place in its narrative for recognising remembrance associated with Irish nationalism and republicanism.

Events suggest that remains some distance off.

Ballymena UUP councillor, Stephen Nicholl, organised a bit of a cheap stunt last Monday, travelling to Dublin to remember British soldiers who died “For King and Country” during the Easter Rising.

As members of British Forces, such casualties are annually remembered by those wishing to mark British Remembrance Day ceremonies in November. Indeed, as an effort to hijack the date of republican commemoration, it is akin to nationalists in Derry seeking to remember those killed by British Forces on Bloody Sunday when unionists gather at the Cenotaph. Could be easily organised, and as an effort to create confrontation and challenge Britain/unionism’s right to remember war dead it would undoubtedly be effective. But to what end?

We can do better. We must.

The fact that Sinn Fein MLA/ Stormont Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin can comfortably talk about the ‘nationalist amnesia’ regarding remembrance of World War I dead illustrates how far Nationalist Ireland has challenged itself and broadened its narrative to incorporate an understanding of The Other, its interpretations of the past and how they inform existing narratives.

There is an onus upon unionism to respect the rights of their nationalist neighbours to remember the 1916 Rebellion in the north, just as unionists were entitled to expect the same from nationalists when commemorating the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant a few years ago.

Historically, republican remembrance in a 6-county context has been a subversive exercise due to the state being reflective exclusively of a British/unionist ethos.

The Good Friday Agreement changed all of that, and increasingly the future will be one of nationalists expecting their traditions to be afforded the same space and conferred with the same sense of legitimacy as those identified with unionists.

That means addressing issues like the lack of symbols and emblems associated with Nationalism/Republicanism in our civic spaces, but it also means making space for Republican commemorations as part of a shared society. I would expect to see BBC Northern Ireland and UTV beginning to provide annual coverage of Easter commemorations, as both have a long established tradition of not only providing live and recorded coverage of British Remembrance Day events, but also of the Twelfth of July loyalist parades.

Nationalist Ireland, through finding a space within its narrative for British remembrance, including through the attendance of Nationalist leaders at Remembrance Sunday ceremonies or, in the case of Sinn Fein, laying wreaths at the Cenotaph and attending Armistice Day events, has shown the way. Whilst it is unrealistic to expect Unionist leaders to attend Republican organised commemorations in the north in the short term, I do believe more forward thinking unionists- or, at least, pro-Union figures holding civic office- will begin to feel obliged to attend official state commemorations in Dublin in the future in recognition of the fact that it is an inevitable consequence of building a shared future in the contested space that is Northern Ireland.

  • mickfealty

    For the sake of fairness, here’s a link to the News Letter’s story of Cllr Nicholl’s trip:

  • Ernekid

    This year marks the Bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. Is there anything related to remembering the thousands of Irishmen who fought in the Napoleonic Wars as both sailors and soldiers?

    The Duke of Wellington was one of the greatest military leaders to have ever come from Ireland. Why don’t we remember Arthur Wellesley’s Irish heritage?

  • Gopher

    There was a version of Nelsons column in Dublin which had been there since 1808 and Im sure it was in someway was related to the “thousands” of Irish sailors in the Napoleonic Wars but it was blown up in 1966 because it offended someones idealogical Irishness. Now everyone with whichever Irish Idealogy imaginable is claiming a bit of 1916 and writing monologues associating it with just about anything.

  • Robin Keogh

    We live in a society of deliberate misunderstanding a perpetual circle of whataboutery and a tragic refusal to accept the legitimicy of each others truths from our own point of view. Its tragic because it prevents us from working together to craft a united future where all traditions can celebrate, commemorate and remember free from divisive arguments and sectarian scare mongering. My hero is your enemy and it seems as if we have subconsciously decided to simply ignore and/or castigate our neighbours simply because they see things differently. The orange order is sectarian, Republicans are murderers, Unionists are bigots, Nationalism is evil….and on and on etc etc. But we know deep down that living this way serves no purpose, solves no problems, secures no future, divides future generations and poisons our political culture. At some point we will all have to realise that two traditions share the six counties, two nationalities that have evolved into their own particular brands of their Mother Identities. For as long as we continue to convince ourselves that the other side is the bad side we will always tussle and always forfiet the benifits of cooperation,accomodation and compromise; prefering antagonism and conflict as a way of proving we are right and they are wrong. We shout louder but the noise around us makes the shouts seem like whispers. Ultimately the problem is not in what we believe or what we feel we have the say, the problem is that we simply refuse to listen.

  • tmitch57

    Maybe because when asked if he considered himself to be Irish, Arthur Wellesley replied, “If I were born in a barn that wouldn’t make me a horse.”

  • Deke Thornton

    Thanks tmitch, I was going to reference that quote. I doubt Field Marshal Montgomery (or indeed Blair Mayne or Tim Collins) would have been so crude. The whole ‘nationality’ thing is ‘awkward’ anyway. We’re all apes and tribal. All nations are artificial. Stalin was Georgian-not Russian- Hitler was Austrian-not German and so on.

  • Deke Thornton

    Also, cannot remember if we’re Laurasian or Gondwanans. Carl Sagan puts the whole nonsense in perspective.

  • Dan


  • Practically_Family

    Possibly after such a commemoration is marked in similar fashion to Remembrance Day in Enniskillen was in ’87. Until then and quite possibly for some time after, I think we’ll be content with our own petty, tribal commemorations.

    And therein (to an extent) lies the rub. Our conflict is ongoing.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “It is akin to nationalists in Derry seeking to remember those killed by British Forces on Bloody Sunday when unionists gather at the cenotaph. Could be easily organised and as an effort to create confrontation and challenge Britain/Unionism,s right to remember war dead it would undoubtedly be effective” Chris it would undoubtedly be effective in further polarizing communities, we have already major problems with cultural parades disputes without opening up a further battle front. MADNESS !

  • Ernekid

    Is there good evidence he actually said that? I was under the impression that it was entirely apocryphal. Wellesley wrote extensively about the love of his family’s Irish estates. He may not have viewed himself as Irish as he was an Anglo Irish aristocrat with an education in England but it’d be wrong to not remember his Irish connections.

  • Practically_Family

    Collins would certainly have something different to say.
    Montgomery though, I feel would concur and likely be just as vocal albeit in somewhat different fashion.
    Mayne, it depends on who you believe. He’s known to have been somewhat incendiary and allegedly one of the best ways to start him off was talking politics, so we may never know. One quote I do remember though (possibly from the Dillon/Bradford book, which is admittedly dubious in parts) is that his political views on Irish matters were typical of a middle class Ulster protestant of the day.

  • willie drennan

    “Ballymena UUP councillor, Stephen Nicholl, organised a bit of a cheap stunt last Monday, travelling to Dublin to remember British soldiers who died “For King and Country” during the Easter Rising.”

    Chris, I think this is bit unfair. As a matter of fact Stephen Nicholl might well be on to something. It is of course fully understandable that Irish Nationalists will want to commemorate the Irish patriots who gave their lives for Ireland’s Cause in 1916. But is it not also important to remember the 116 young British soldiers who were killed for doing their job? It is not also necessary to remember the innocent civilians in Dublin who were killed in the crossfire?

    I thing the Easter Rising commemorations are crucial and offer much for all of us to reflect upon.

    First of all there was a big lesson for the British Establishment when they publicly executed rebellion leaders after the rebellion had been crushed. They learned once and for all that trying to impose authority through fear and oppression will backfire. They should have already learned that when the execution of United Irishman William Orr in 1797 seriously backfired.

    Secondly, there are always innocent civilian victims of violent conflict.

    Thirdly, what did the Easter Rising actually achieve for Ireland’s Cause and the Irish people? Was Irish independence from Britain not inevitable anyway? What did the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, with its horrendous casualties achieve for Ireland’s Cause? What did the recent brutal IRA campaign in Northern Ireland actually achieve for Ireland’s Cause? It may have advanced the careers and power base of a few elitist politicians but how did it benefit the Irish people?

  • Ernekid

    Was Irish independence from Britain not inevitable anyway?

    Maybe, If Home Rule was achieved, Ireland might have eventually ended up achieving full independence like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Although if an Armed uprising didn’t happen in 1916, it might very well led to an armed uprising in 1918 during the Conscription crisis. It could have led to mass mutinies from battle tired Soldiers on the Western Front. With Bolshevism in the ascendancy, Who knows how European history might have developed?

  • Jay

    No British soldier should be remembered down south. Not one. They were the enemy and they were defeated. Told to leave. Bye bye, don’t come back. But no doubt the spineless Irish will bend over back to accommodate the very people they fought against for centuries. We are a pathetic breed of people at times.

  • Ernekid

    What do you mean by a British soldier? The thousands of men from Ireland who served gallantly in the British armed forces for centuries? The Thousands of men from across the Empire from Canada, The Caribbean, Australia, Africa and India?
    Are only soldiers from Great Britain bad?

    The Easter Rising was a resounding victory for the British Army and we can chalk the Anglo-Irish war up as a draw. The British could have ‘won’ but winning would have meant deploying thousands of troops to Ireland at great expense so they decided to negotiate.

    What a odd view of history you have.

  • Paddy Reilly

    I think that recent research has established that Wellington said no such thing: it was Daniel O’Connell who said it about him when some English politician spoke of Wellington and O’Connell as ‘fellow-countrymen’.

  • carlovivigornian

    In 2023, it will be the centenary of the end of the Civil War. Which side’s fallen combatants and also which side’s civilian victims will be remembered, officially? With the start and end of the centenary of the War of Independence on its way, as well as the centenary of the end of the First World War, I can see 2016-2023 becoming a Seven Years’ War of Scorn that will manage to cheese off most segments of society across Ireland at least once. Almost better to ask everyone on the island (the world?) to have a minute’s silence at noon every New Year’s Day to remember, silently and privately, everyone they feel may have not lived out their life to the full because of the unwarranted actions of others. For example, is a child killed by a drunk driver not as worthy of remembrance as an adult shot by the the Tans or the ‘RA?

  • Jay

    Hold on here. We wanted the British gone and theyre gone. We won.

  • Jag

    How many commemorations are there in Britain each year for the Irish who fought against British invasion and occupation?

    How many plaques are there in Russia to those fine men of the Wehrmacht who fought like tigers during WW2?

    How is egalite etc Napoleon remembered in Britain? That was two hundred years ago, and the Brits still have sore memories.

    Jay is right in my view, but if you think otherwise, show us an example of a country in the world which was invaded and then shows remembrance towards the invaders.

    As for Irish citizens press ganged through economic circumstances into the British army, the least said about them, the better.

  • Glenn Clare

    A post in the classic style of Sinn Fein, try and claim the moral high ground first. Then appear all conciliatory with their one shinner at a Armistice event. Then from their imaginary lofty moral high ground, pontificate at all those who will listen.

    One shinner/provo goes to an Armistice day event at this part of partitionist Ireland, and because of this republicans demand that Unionists join them as they commemorate an Irish republican defeat. No doubt they will demand to march up and down Royal Avenue, oh the irony, as they make their way to the City Hall. A building they attempted to blow up, to commemorate a British victory in Dublin.

    As for cherishing the children equality, well there’s an Irish republican nag that never got out of their Trojan’s stable.

    As for the Sinn Fein/IRA and the GFA, I think Ed Moloney, hit the nail on the head with his description of what republicans are celebrating when they can rewrite a defeat into a victory, both then an now.

    “SB: And now we have made contact with Ed Moloney, the author of Voices From the Grave and A Secret History of the IRA, and Ed blogs on The Broken Elbow. Ed, thanks very much for being with us.

    EM: My pleasure, Sandy.

    SB: And Ed, the war in The North is supposed to be over but it seems the British government doesn’t think so – they are continuing to prosecute and potentially lock up former members of the IRA – even those who had an explicit agreement from the same British government that they would never be prosecuted. So what’s going on?

    EM: Well, you know when the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated and a few years later the deal finally implemented, there was a belief that two things would happen: 1) is that while there wouldn’t be an officially announced amnesty, the police and the authorities on the British side would close the books on The Troubles as it were – leave that all behind – and reach out to the future with a sort of clean slate.

    And secondly: As part of the secret negotiations that took place between the Sinn Féin leadership, the Provo leadership, and the Blair government: A number of letters were issued to people who were On-the-Run, in other words who were wanted for certain offences and could risk being arrested and put on trial if they ever came back to Northern Ireland or to Britain, and these letters more or less guaranteed that these people would no longer be sought. In other words, that was sort of an official, agreed amnesty and it became part of the Good Friday Agreement accords and the whole peace agreement. And I think Blair and his people have said on several different occasion that without it it would have been much more difficult for Gerry Adams to have delivered the peace process because you know – what worth is the peace process if the British are still going to lock up your activists? You know, it doesn’t look like a negotiated peace at all. It looks like a victory – a military defeat.

    And that’s the way it stood until the Cameron government came into power. Now the Cameron – it’s very important to understand the influence of neoconservatives on Cameron and his administration – there are a number of his senior ministers – his Chancellor, the Exchequer, George what’s his name who – I forget his surname now – and also Michael Gove, who was Minister of Education and various other – George Osborn is the name of the Chancellor – and various other ministers and MPs are all signed-up members of the neoconservative wing of the Tory Party. And the think tank which has the greatest influence on conservative policy, an outfit called Policy Exchange, is headed by Dean Godson whose brother worked as a neo-con adviser to the Bush administration and is himself a neoconservative.

    Their view of the peace process is that they were entirely hostile to it – their analysis of it was that cockamamie analysis and it was: That this was all a big trick by Gerry Adams to get the IRA back into a war situation strengthened by the various concessions that they had wrought from the British – it was absolute nonsense and based upon testimony from one former IRA member (whose name now escapes me) but he was their sort of “pet” IRA person who fed these fantasies – and that’s all now being translated into action which I think, myself, runs entirely contrary both to the letter and the spirit of the peace process.

    First of all, these letters to the On-the-Runs have been torn up and the police are making it very clear – the PSNI are making it very clear that they’re going to pursue these people and pursue other people and try to put them behind bars.

    And why I say this is a return to the war is that: If you examine how the conflict was fought between the British and the IRA – I mean, clearly the IRA went out to kill as many British targets as they could and to blow up commercial targets, etc etc – now obviously they killed an awful lot of civilians in the process – but that was their stated methodology of fighting the war.

    The British response was two-fold: Party it was taking out and killing IRA members themselves but primarily and mainly and mostly it was an attempt to put people into goal – put them behind bars – put them on trial – convict them and throw them in goal for a number of years. And that was how they fought the war.

    Well, the IRA has ended its war – it no longer bombs, it no longer shoots, it’s given up all its weaponry and most of its structures – IRA structures – have been dismantled. But the British? There they are – they’re trying to put people back in goal – not only people arrested under the Boston College business but also people who were On-the-Run and every week it seems that there’s some eighty year old or seventy year old arrested and charged with this that and the other. It seems as if it’s going to continue under Cameron and – to my mind – it is a breech of the peace process – both the spirit and the letter – it is a return to war by the British – because this is how they fought the war – it’s not being reciprocated by the IRA. And the strangest thing of all is that seems to be tolerated by Sinn Féin because they’re not saying a word in protest yet everyone can see there is something really radically wrong. Even Niall O’Dowd’s organ this week carried a story from Eamon Delaney , a former Irish diplomat, pointing out that this was something that could really undermine the peace process so – everyone else is saying this is wrong or most people are who are following the situation – except Sinn Féin – they’re saying nothing at all – which is really strange.

    SB: But Ed, why is that? You have the British government essentially tearing up key parts of the peace agreement and Sinn Féin doesn’t say a mumbling word.

    EM: Well, I can’t peer into the minds of Messers Adams and McGuinness but let’s look at the track record, for example: When Gerry Adams was arrested in May last year on the basis of Jean McConville’s allegations against him his comrades outside – while he was languishing in a police cell – his comrades outside were jumping up and down – hopping with anger and Martin McGuinness was talking about dark elements still in the PSNI – which is entirely true, of course! I mean, we know that. The whole reason for the whole Boston College business is because of ex-Special Branch people who are now back into the PSNI who want revenge on Adams & Company.

    And it was clear from the behaviour and response of people outside Antrim Police cell that they were extremely angry at this and saw it as a betrayal of the peace process. And what does Adams do when he comes out? He slaps McGuinness down – no more talk of renegade or dark elements etc in the police force, please – and was quite happy to make no fuss at all – to make no political point relating to his arrest which is: Here I am – the guy who was the principle architect for this peace process – without whom there would not now be peace in Northern Ireland and between Britain and Ireland and yet here they are trying to throw me in goal – what does this say about the peace process? And I think that really is the fundamental weakness of the whole business and I think that’s why Sinn Féin is staying quiet – because this really does demonstrate that this really wasn’t – or at least it’s open to the interpretation – that this wasn’t an equal peace process. It was, in fact, a victory of one side over the other and no one in their leadership can admit that.

    JM: And Ed, this is the difference between winning and losing: When Mandela gets out and the ANC members can come back – they’re not being arrested and charged for things that happened years ago and Ed, it is so humiliating! I’m going to read a statement that was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday by Loyalist politician, Mr Dodds. Mr. Dodds asks: Would the Prime Minister now list in the Library of House all those other Sinn Féin members and leading Republicans who have likewise received a Royal Parson so that Republicans in Northern Ireland can know which of their stalwart leaders have either begged or asked or probably on bended knee such a Royal Pardon and secondly, so that everyone can know – in the country which governments have been involved in such nefarious activities. Now even the thought of asking the Queen of England for a Royal Pardon – I mean we’re talking about what happened in 1916 and 1921 – you could almost say they might be asking now for a Royal Pardon. So now you have to ask Republicans in The Six Counties – they have to go to the Queen of England to get a Royal Pardon!

    EM: Well, indeed and I understand that Gerry Kelly has since announced that he was on the receiving end of a Royal Pardon although that preceded – I think that happened before the peace process. But there’s an awful lot about the process that remains secret and will probably remain secret forever and we will probably never get to the bottom of all of these stories.
    But if the PSNI, as they say as they intend to do or the police in Britain intend to, pursue these people and try to put them in goal – I think that’s going to produce a situation which cannot be ignored by the Sinn Féin leadership. Of course, I know they have their eyes very firmly set on winning this election in the South and that’s all they really care about but at the same time they daren’t risk the peace process falling to pieces in The North while this is happening – and I think that’s the danger here – see, what it does, realistically, is that it tends to strengthen the arguments of the “dissidents” within Republicanism which is: that the peace process is not what it says that it should be or could be or will be – that it’s something entirely different – that it represents a defeat. And not only that, but you can never trust the British and you can never have an agreement with them that they won’t renege on.

    And they’ve reneged on this one – I mean this is a “big reneging”. Blair, the Prime Minister of Britain, gave the Provos his word that these people would not be prosecuted and here’s the subsequent government saying: Well, screw that – we’re tearing those letters up. It doesn’t matter.

    So, what’s the lesson from that? It’s an ago-old lesson in Irish history and one which has always divided physical force Republicanism from Constitutional Nationalism with physical force people saying: At the end of the day you can’t trust these people because they’ll always do the dirt on you – and here is an example of it”.

    When it comes to street politics the shinners/provos are masters, but when it comes to the real politick, they are always out of their limited depth.

    As for the article, if there were prizes for those who continue to rewrite history and yesterdays weather, the shinners/provos and republicans would win hands down.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It’s “Northern Ireland” – go on, you can say it …

  • Reader

    Chris Donnelly: I would expect to see BBC Northern Ireland and UTV beginning to provide annual coverage of Easter commemorations, as both have a long established tradition of not only providing live and recorded coverage of British Remembrance Day events, but also of the Twelfth of July loyalist parades.
    It makes a bit more sense to compare republican commemorations with the 12th July than with Remembrance day – which after all, commemorates both nationalist and unionist dead in a way that neither the republican nor loyalist commemorations will ever do.

  • Jag

    Why bother, whatever it is, it’s past security in the departure lounge for reunification.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think it may have got stuck in traffic on its way to the airport

    I’d probably turn around and drive back home to bed.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you might have spoken too soon. I gather there are still quite a few British people left in Northern Ireland. But go on, one more push and you’ll drive the buggers into the sea. You can do it!

  • Glenn Clare

    I think Chris Donnelly, is on to something, on an equality issue here. There are thousands of cultural marching band parades/band competitions both outdoor and indoor events. They mainly take place here in Northern Ireland, with some taking place in other parts of the UK and the Irish republic. They usually start in spring and end in the autumn, and currently they don’t get any coverage on BBC TV or radio unlike say the gaa or the Irish language. In the interests of equality I think the BBC should have weekly shows and nightly reports on the marching band scene both outdoor and indoor, giving more coverage to this growing cultural marching band scene and their competitions would encourage it to grow and become a greater outlet for young and old alike.

    On another note. Isn’t ironic that Sinn Fein/IRA supporters and republicans demand respect, and it’s again demanded in the article above. Yet they can’t even state the name of the country that they live and work in or administrate through the British regional assembly at Stormont. In fact republicans despise the place that much they physically went out and removed signs welcoming people to Northern Ireland.

  • Guest

    They are not British-they were not born in Britain,they were born in Ireland so they are Irish,they are treated as Irish if they go to England.They are no more British than a Boer is a Dutchman.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    We’ve all moved on from the old chauvinistic prejudices, I suggest you do too.

    Even SF agreed in 1998 people in Northern Ireland who feel British have a right to be accepted as such. Did you miss that?

    That leaves you with the fringe loop-the-loop Republican dissidents. I’m glad you’re in a very, very small minority these days.