Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t detect as much of a poppy controversy as in previous years. That may be that because being the 100th anniversary, a significant emphasis this year has been where perhaps it always should have, ie the war’s end.
Widen the lens and you’ll see that the poppy was the invention of an American woman inspired by a Canadian soldier’s poem. “Her idea was for the artificial poppies to be manufactured in France “by women, for the benefit of children”.
Still, 100 years after the end of that war, and 96 after partition, Remembrance is complicated in Ireland. But at the weekend, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter had an educated crack at untangling some of its primary threads…
Thousands of Irish family histories are haunted by the war and it continues to provoke strong sentiment because of its horrendous scale and the ways it is memorialised, but there is also a greater appreciation now that the memory and sense of it is ill-served by the reduction of a multitude of personal experiences into neat parcels of affiliation or motivation.
Or to put it a slightly different way it is not “Britain” that Remembrance means in Ireland, but men and women who believed they were fighting for Ireland as it was in 1914. That inveterate bridge builder, Fine Gael TD Frank Feighan who commissioned the Irish poppy has said:
…there was no conscription on the island of Ireland, so all those soldiers chose to fight, around one in seven men of service age enlisted voluntarily.
The thousands of Irish people who fought and died in World War I were shop workers, farm labourers, brothers, sons and daughters. They came from every city, town, village and townland across the island of Ireland.
Soldiers signed up for different reasons, including financial necessity, out of a sense of adventure, or importantly in an effort to secure the long-awaited Home Rule Bill for Ireland.
As Ferriter notes, there was not the enmity in the 1920s that is often imagined between WWI veterans and those of the Irish revolution…
Many nationalists in the 1920s, for example, did not object to remembrance but what they regarded as its hijacking. In 1927, leading figures in the new Fianna Fáil party spoke at a protest at College Green in Dublin to object to what Seán Lemass referred to as remembrance gatherings that “were utilised by a small section to display imperialistic sentiments”.
Lemass did not take issue with war remembrance but with the display of the Union Jack in the fledgling Free State and he specifically called on “nationalist ex-servicemen” to ensure that remembrance “was not used to insult people”. He had no objection “to any section of the people honouring their dead”.
What he did not mention was that two of his cousins, Herbert and Edwin Lemass, had fought with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Herbert had been killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a few months after the young Seán had fought in the GPO during the Easter Rising.
Éamon de Valera also asserted at the 1927 meeting that “nothing was more natural than that men should seek to commemorate the memory of comrades who fought side by side in battle” including the Irish nationalists who had fought for what they believed was the furthering of their own country’s liberation.
Diarmaid then lights on a correspondence between two brothers from Tralee, one away at the war from the beginning and one at home:
The correspondence between two brothers, Michael and John Moynihan from a prominent political family in Tralee, has been closely examined by historian Deirdre McMahon, who sees their correspondence as reflecting an impatience with what they regarded as the weakness and decadence of an older generation and the idea that they had been born into a world “lacking energy and fibre” which had led to international crisis.
As McMahon points out, this not only prompted intergenerational tension but also a sense of “discontinuity and a tendency towards extremes: optimism, dogmatism and, ominously, the growing appeal of war as catharsis, as a form of national regeneration and renewal”.
Who knows what contribution he and they would have made to postwar Ireland? John Moynihan and another brother, Maurice, went on to have distinguished careers as public servants, working with, among others, Seán Lemass, who in 1966 came back to the subject of Irish service in the British army from 1914-1918 and sought, perhaps, to salve his conscience:
“In later years it was common – and I also was guilty in this respect – to question the motives of those men who joined the new British armies formed at the outbreak of war, but it must, in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said that they were motivated by the highest purpose.”
Northern Ireland remains, in this and many other respects, a place apart. Sinn Fein has made it clear that its long season of gesture making on remembrance is presently closed, albeit much to the relief of some unionists not to mention a majority of their hardline leadership.
As Jamie Delargy argued here last year, like any meaningful gesture remembrance should be a reserve of the genuinely willing. As Mary Lou pointed out in her recent letter to the Irish Times, the Queen’s visit to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin was significant and historic.
At the time, I suggested:
…she paid homage to the violent origins of the Irish state’s earlier struggles to win its independence from her grandfather, George V. At the Islandbridge Memorial to those thousands of Irishmen who died in the service of the British army, the nation may take a moment to reflect on its long and complex ties both with the other island, and that disembodied northern part of itself still represented by this visiting head of state.
More important, I suspect, it will be about the Republic putting on a stately show of sovereignty at a time when many citizens are struggling to retain their belief in its hard-won independence.
Gestures only work if they are genuine. And the test of authenticity is whether or not they align with wider behaviour. In the present era of “boxing ring trash talk”, as Jamie put it, that passes for politics between SF and the DUP meaningful realignment seems a long way off.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty