How Ireland remembers, or refuses to remember, WWI
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.