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Eunan O'Halpin: 'Society did not neglect Irish war veterans'

Irish war veterans certainly felt poorly treated after the Great War but there are many examples of huge support from the public, writes historian Eunan O'Halpin


Remembering the fallen: British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Taoiseach Enda Kenny lay wreathes at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium in 2013

Remembering the fallen: British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Taoiseach Enda Kenny lay wreathes at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium in 2013

Remembering the fallen: British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Taoiseach Enda Kenny lay wreathes at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium in 2013

Ireland's relatively small number of rebel dead - less than 90 during the Rising, and less than 500 between 1919 and 1921 - were routinely formally remembered on significant anniversaries by both the state and its internal republican enemies after 1922; the very much larger number of Irishmen and handful of Irish women who fell in the Great War were not.

A definitive count of Irish Great War dead is impossible, but the best estimate for the island is around 35,000 soldiers and sailors of every political and religious persuasion. All served voluntarily: Britain's disastrous decision to impose conscription in Ireland in March 1918 only managed to unite constitutional and radical nationalism in successful opposition.

A recently completed memorial at Woodenbridge lists almost 1,200 Wicklow people who died through Great War-related violence or disaster, including men and women killed in a munitions factory explosion in Arklow. By contrast, between 1919 and 1921 the sum total of Wicklow deaths attributable to political violence was eight (including two policemen shot in the last week of the conflict, and another who killed himself after murdering a civilian).

Kevin Myers has written that "no western democracy has achieved such a melancholy feat of posthumous contempt" as Ireland in neglecting the fallen of the Great War. There is an obvious analogy with India, where the crucial contribution of the British Indian army to the defeat of Japan is completely overshadowed in public commemoration by Hindu nationalist valorisation of Subhas Chandra Bose's ineffectual Japanese-controlled 'Indian National Army', a ragbag analogous to the Casement brigade which was roundly defeated by fellow Indians - disproportionately Muslim and Sikh - wherever they clashed. Although museums and statues may suggest otherwise, it was heroic non-violent and constitutional politics, not armed struggle alongside the Axis, which secured Indian independence.

My colleague Anne Dolan's Commemorating the Irish Civil War: history and memory 1923-2000 (2005) dissected the extreme awkwardness and niggardliness with which the new Irish state addressed commemoration of the dead of the independence struggle and civil war. It was not until 1986 that a 'national day of commemoration' was established which facilitated state acknowledgement of all Irish people who gave their lives in war or in international peacekeeping. This respectful and resilient Irish solution to an Irish problem contrasts with the Remembrance Sunday bombing of November 8, 1987 at Enniskillen, so atrocious a sectarian act that the Provisional IRA initially denied responsibility. A second bomb failed to detonate at the assembly point for another Fermanagh commemorative parade which included two children's bands.

No group of Irish veterans of the Great War, of the independence struggle, or of the Civil War, felt that they were fairly treated or that their contributions were properly recognised. Ex-servicemen were disproportionately victimised by the IRA in 1920/21, constituting more than 46pc of the 183 civilians definitely killed as spies. But society at large did not neglect or persecute them. Big organisations such as railway companies, brewers and the post office re-employed those whom they had encouraged to enlist. Ex-servicemen got some British-financed "homes fit for heroes"; rebel veterans received no such benefit. Ex-servicemen undoubtedly felt unfairly treated in the new Ireland (as Catholic ex-servicemen certainly were in the new Northern Ireland). Yet so too did anti-Treaty veterans, while a proportion of the Civil War victors became so disenchanted that they mutinied in 1924, and army veterans formed the backbone of General O'Duffy's quasi-fascist Blueshirt movement in the 1930s.

The record shows that, despite fitful disruption from republicans, the Irish fallen of the Great War were commemorated in public as well as in private: indeed, in 1924 the Provost of Trinity, who had lost a son at Gallipoli, interpreted an Armistice Day crowd estimated at 70,000 in College Green as proof that the spirit of empire still flourished in Ireland.

Ex-servicemen continued to rally in large numbers to commemorate fallen comrades on Armistice Day up to 1939. In 1948. William Hickie, head of the Royal British Legion in Ireland, maintained that "the Legion is going stronger than ever" and that "more Poppies were worn in Dublin than ever before". In 1949, he was overjoyed when a 'bigwig' described Ireland as the league's strongest region in the British Isles, while "our Poppy Day throughout the country" was the most successful. A waning in the 1950s was attributable more to the passage of time and fading of living memory than to state indifference or republican hostility: I recall only poppies, not Easter lilies, being sold door to door in sedate Sandymount in the mid-1960s.

One enduring way in which the Irish dead of the Great War are generally far better served than the 1916-21 rebels in both aesthetic and practical terms is in physical commemoration. Anyone who visits Irish war graves in Belgium, France and Turkey will be moved by their dignity and impressed by the care accorded them; by contrast, until an imaginative revitalisation some years ago, the Garden of Remembrance was a dilapidated and hazardous public space best avoided if not forgotten.

Neither it nor the more successful Arbour Hill 1916 memorial can be compared in conception, scale and execution to another commemorative edifice, largely funded by the Irish state in the 1930s and brilliantly restored in the 1980s. That is the majestic and serene Irish National War Memorial park on the Liffey's southern bank at Islandbridge, a monument which will endure when even the Enniskillen atrocity has faded from public memory.

Eunan O'Halpin is Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin

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