How Ireland remembers, or refuses to remember, WWI

By on August 8, 2014
commemoration ceremony ww1-n

Members of the Captain’s Guard of Honour drawn from the 27 Infantry Battalion at last month’s National Day of Commemoration ceremony held in Dublin where Irish men and women who died while serving in past wars or on service with the UN were remembered (Photo: Photocall)

WHEN you study Ireland you rapidly realise how difficult it is to think of the past as the past.

It is constantly reproduced in highly politicised ways and the history of World War One is no different.

In 1914, Ireland was on the brink of civil war, as militant Unionists, who had armed themselves and formed the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), vowed to oppose Home Rule. But on the outbreak of war in Europe, members of the UVF formed the 36th Ulster Division and went overseas.

At the same time, Catholics and nationalists joined two divisions in the South, fighting for Britain in the expectation that Home Rule would be their reward. They were to be the first ashore at Gallipoli, suffering horrendous casualties, while the Ulster Division went into action at the Somme, where its ranks were decimated.

During WWI, some 200,000 men from the island of Ireland fought in the British Army. Almost 50,000 lost their lives. But after the war, in 1920, the partition of Ireland — the division of the island into two distinct territories; Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom and Southern Ireland, now the Republic of Ireland, an independent state — meant that the conflict was remembered — or forgotten — in contrasting ways.

In the South, after Partition there is what is generally referred to as the Great Collective Amnesia. Military service for Britain is completely written out of the history of the nation both at the official level and at the populist, localised level — there are lots of tales of poppy sellers being attacked on the streets.

It was only when the Queen visited the Irish Republic in May 2011 that attitudes began to change and Ireland’s part in World War One is now openly acknowledged in the South. In the Protestant North, the deeds of the 36th Ulster Division were always commemorated and the fact that July 1, the opening of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, was also the date of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, according to the “old style” calendar, added a potent layer of mythology.

For many within Protestant Unionism it was already an important day and then the Somme was laid on top of that. There were stories and songs about people from the 36th Division going over the top wearing Orange regalia. Whether that is true or not, it is an important part of the myth.”

In 1966 — on the verge of the Troubles in the Province and on the 50th anniversary of both the Somme and the Easter Rising in Dublin — Protestants in the North reformed the Ulster Volunteer Force, adopting the symbolism of the original regiment.

I am not that interested in history in the same way that historians are. What people believe happened in the past is just as important or even more important to me as what actually happened.

The issue is how you begin to reconcile those memories so that you can arrive at a form of commemoration or memorialisation that doesn’t continue to be divisive.

About the author
Professor Jim McAuley is Director of Research at the University of Huddersfield’s School of Human and Health Sciences.
He is also Director of the Institute for Research in Citizenship, the Academy for British and Irish Studies and the Centre for Research in the Social Sciences.
The Belfast-born sociologist and author is currently exploring Ireland’s collective memory of the 1914-1918 conflict, investigating the contrasting ways in which the war is commemorated and memorialised.
His book Very British Rebels, which deals with the relationship between Loyalism and The Great War, is due to be published next year.
Irish Post

About Irish Post

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2 Comments

  1. Alan

    August 9, 2014 at 10:45 am

    I have lived in London for nearly twenty years. Whenever I have mentioned the fact that Ireland DID send troops to WWI I have met with a range of reactions. Mostly it is disbelief that Ireland was involved as many people think that we were neutral, but I have also met some hostility as well. Some people have criticised me for trying to claim any form of credit for Ireland in WWI. I think there is the sense that we are always the comic-book villians and so could never have been involved in such a rightous event.
    There is definitely a palpable sense of “this is OUR war and OUR commemoration; don’t you try to claim any of it for yourselves. You’re not invited.” Interestingly, because of the centenary, there are many documentaries on the television over here and I have so far not seen any references to Irish troops fighting in WWI.
    As such, I avoid all references to any of the wars (difficult, as I work for the Fire Brigade and they take part in Rememberence Day every year). I certainly don’t have the “amnesia” that it is claimed I do.
    I just choose to commemorate our WWI soldiers – including my grandfather – in my own private way.
    So you see, it’s not down to just us.

  2. Alan

    August 12, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    I have lived in London for nearly twenty years. Whenever I have mentioned the fact that Ireland DID send troops to WWI I have met with a range of reactions. Mostly it is disbelief that Ireland was involved as many people think that we were neutral, but I have also met some hostility as well. Some people have criticised me for trying to claim any form of credit for Ireland in WWI. I think there is the sense that we are always the comic-book villians and so could never have been involved in such a rightous event.
    There is definitely a palpable sense of “this is OUR war and OUR commemoration; don’t you try to claim any of it for yourselves.” Interestingly, because of the centenary, there are many documentaries on the television over here and I have so far not seen a single reference to Irish troops fighting in WWI.
    As such, I avoid all references to any of the wars (difficult, as I work for the Fire Brigade and they take part in Rememberence Day every year). I certainly don’t have the “amnesia” that it is claimed I do. I just choose to commemorate our WWI soldiers – including my grandfather – in my own private way.

    So you see, it’s not down to just us.

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