Monday 26 August 2019

A green prism of history held us for too long: now we take a wider view

By wearing a 'shamrock poppy', Leo Varadkar embraced all those who were lost to distant wars

The aftermath of the no-warning Enniskillen bomb
The aftermath of the no-warning Enniskillen bomb
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

For those of us indoctrinated with claustrophobic nationalism, seeing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wearing the 'shamrock poppy' in Dail Eireann last week, ahead of Remembrance Sunday today, was a milestone in our maturity as a nation.

Symbols like flags and emblems are important in defining one's 'tribe', but now at last we are beginning to accept that there are many strands to the nation we've become and remembering the past is not about excluding those who took a different path.

Possibly because he is something of an outsider himself Leo Varadkar has shown that he, unlike those who came before him, is not weighed down by the heavy hand of history.

He not only invented a new symbol, but apart from some half-hearted grumblings from Sinn Fein, he did something that would have been unthinkable not so long ago - he gained widespread acceptance for it.

His 'shamrock poppy' came in the same week that diehard Republican Liam Sutcliffe, the man who blew up Nelson Pillar,'s in Dublin was buried. A landmark that was only really missed by Dubliners when it was gone, the demolition of the pillar was not only an act of vandalism, but a dangerous one that could have cost many lives but for a bumbling bomb-maker.

Sutcliffe, a true believer to the end, also departed this world shrouded in symbolism - his coffin was draped in the Fenian flag, perhaps indicating that the Tricolour now truly belongs to those who accept this peaceful 26-county state.

The 16th Irish Division on the Somme during World War I
The 16th Irish Division on the Somme during World War I

Emblems, whether they be the poppy or the Easter lily, are part of the wider Irish identity. Each is a living symbol of the many forebears who fought for the "freedom of small nations" or the more insular cause of Irish nationalism.

For too long, the blood sacrifice of those who lost their lives 100 years ago at Messines or Passchendaele was deliberately written out of Irish history by bitter and blinkered men.

The poppy came to be regarded as a symbol of oppression and colonialism in Ireland rather than what it really is - a real connection to those who died on those far foreign fields, many of them needless and savage deaths. While pictures of a celebration of Armistice Day in 1924 show thousands of people gathered at College Green in Dublin, Ireland's increasingly polarised partitionist policies (followed by neutrality in World War II) quickly pushed those who fought in the Great Wars into the background.

War memorials in many garrison Irish towns and on railway station walls were left neglected and largely forgotten. The wonderful Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge fell into near ruin. The British Legion shrunk to groups of old men who met quietly so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s shamrock poppy in the Dail last week
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s shamrock poppy in the Dail last week

They came to be regarded as an eccentric relic of forgotten conflicts. They didn't fit in with the narrative of the new Ireland, 'Gaelic and Catholic' - that mythical land defined by looking back rather than forward.

The Troubles added to this isolation. I recall being with an Irish friend in London in the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday some time in the mid-1980s and remember that his resentment at English people wearing the poppy in their own country was enormous and disconcerting.

When he was Taoiseach during the 1987-1989 period, Charlie Haughey refused to allow President Paddy Hillery, who had privately accepted an invitation, to attend a Remembrance Day service in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

On another occasion, coalition ministers Paddy Cooney and Barry Desmond defied the consensus and went.

The Royal British Legion's shamrock and poppy badge
The Royal British Legion's shamrock and poppy badge

Things come in cycles and a new and more balanced interest in the past and our ancestry led Irish families to discover and talk about those who fought and died (or lived) in foreign wars as soldiers in the British Army. Instead of burying the past, an increasing number of Irish people chose to celebrate and commemorate those men and women.

I grew up knowing I had English relations imaginatively known as "the Leicesters" (because they lived in Leicester). It was only long after I left school that I discovered my grandfather's brother was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary who left Ireland after independence and sadly never returned.

The same happened for many of those who joined the British Army - they never returned, or when they did they did so quietly to a country that had forgotten or begrudged their sacrifice.

All changed, to borrow Yeats's phrase, and changed utterly 30 years ago, shortly before 11am on November 8, 1987 - when on that Sunday morning, the IRA detonated a bomb inside the Reading Room adjacent to the cenotaph in Enniskillen, blowing out the gable wall, killing 11 innocent people and maiming and injuring many more.

It was by no means the worst atrocity during those times - but the brutality and inhumanity of that act exposed, if exposure was needed, the callous, fanatical and demented thinking of a few men and women whose vision of life and humanity was blinkered by hatred ingrained in them from the day they were born.

Enniskillen was the moment that broke down the barriers between civilised people, whether they believed in political nationalism and unionism or neither.

In the years that followed, through the work of a small but growing group, Irish people began to revisit the past and see something wider than the green prism of history many of us grew up with.

We began to recognise that many Irishmen fought in, and died in, the great wars that made modern Europe because of their beliefs and courage.

There are still people out there who want to argue over the rights and wrongs of fighting for king or kaiser, or whether the poppy is a symbol of needless slaughter at the Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres and other bloody battles now consigned to the history books.

The fact is that the 16th Irish Division, which fought in these bloody encounters, was largely made up of Irishmen - most of whom genuinely believed they were fighting for the freedom of small nations (even if elements of the higher echelons of the British Army regarded some of them, such as the 47th Brigade, as "riff-raff Redmondites").

Death does not discriminate. Today if you go to St Mary's churchyard in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, you will find the graves of IRA men from the Flying Columns, of Irishmen who fought in the British Army, and of others who served with the United Nations on peace-keeping missions spread around the same cemetery.

When Leo Varadkar walked into the Dail wearing the poppy on a green background, he was including all those who have a connection to those wars, those deaths and those heroics.

In the space of a century, we have come full circle and most people have discarded the suffocating sense of history that imprisoned us in insular nationalism in favour of a broader more humanitarian view of life and death.

At least in some respects, we've grown up.

Sunday Independent

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