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Veterans Day in Ireland

Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day in the U.S.) owes its origins to the desire of combatant nations in the First World War to honor their veterans and commemorate their war dead. Over the years successive military conflicts have been brought into the fold for these commemorative events, as well. In the U.S., Canada, and much of Europe, Remembrance Day is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a country that would not want to acknowledge their service men and women.

But in Ireland, things are different. Ireland has not always been a willing participant in Remembrance Day activities. In fact, for decades Ireland’s participation in the First World War was largely swept under the rug and it is only recently that the situation has begun to change.

Many people are surprised to learn that Ireland fought in the First World War at all. The Irish did so as members of the British Army and, interestingly, every Irishmen who enlisted from Ireland did so of his own free will. According to the 1911 census, there were fewer than 1.2 million men aged 15 to 54. At least 200,000 Irishmen fought in the war and approximately 31,000 died, accounting for approximately 16.6 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively, of the 15 to 54 age group.

Irishmen enlisted for a wide range of reasons, and one of the more common ones was political. In the south, nationalists wanted to demonstrate to the British that they could handle their own affairs after Home Rule granted Ireland a degree of independence. In the north, unionists sought to prove their allegiance to king and country in order to ensure they would be excluded from Home Rule.

For the Irishmen who were cheered as heroes when they went off to war in 1914, there was no indication that they would be jeered as traitors who had fought for the wrong cause upon their return home. Yet, this was precisely what happened in the southern Ireland.

While military leaders on the continent tried to bleed their enemies white, a small group of Irish republicans in Dublin staged a rebellion against the British government over Easter Week in April 1916. The rebellion ultimately failed in its goal of establishing an independent Irish republic. However, the decision of the British government to execute the leaders of the Easter Rising was the catalyst for a change in public opinion and with this one fateful order sympathy for the republican cause increased exponentially. By the time by-elections were held in December 1918, Sinn Féin, the political party of the republican movement, had moved from fringe group to center stage in Irish politics. Irish independence became synonymous with Sinn Féin’s and the Easter Rising and the men who fought in the First World War were brushed aside.

Left to their own devices after the war, Irish ex-servicemen developed a sub-community that observed Remembrance Day and other commemorative rituals honoring Ireland’s war dead. However, in the south these efforts were done largely without the support of the national government, which remained apathetic toward Ireland’s Great War veterans.

In the 1920s, Dublin hosted large Remembrance Day celebrations that saw thousands of people descend on the capital. But when Eamon de Valera came to power in 1932, his Fianna Fáil government took steps to curtail Remembrance Day events and over the next two decades the size and scale of Remembrance Day celebrations in Ireland shrank.

In the north the situation was drastically different. When members of the 36th Ulster Division went over the top on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 they almost immediately joined the northern Irish pantheon alongside the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The blood sacrifice of the 36th Division has been a point of northern unionist/loyalist pride ever since.

If one were to chart the state of Great War memory in Ireland on an x/y axis, the line for Northern Ireland would start high on the y-axis and decline slightly over the years as the war generation slowly dwindled. Conversely, the line for the south would start high on the y-axis in the 1920s, but make a swift and steady decline toward the x-axis starting in the 1930s. In the south, Great War memory outside of the community of ex-servicemen transitioned from a contested space to a forgotten one.

It is precisely because the majority of Irish people in the south forgot about the First World War that efforts to reclaim this aspect of national history has been so ardent for the past quarter century.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the public debate around the Great War in the south was much more tempered. This trend began with the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s because some Irish sought common threads and shared experiences between the north and the south to counter the events in the north. This continued in a piecemeal fashion until 1987, when the IRA bombed a Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen. It was at this point that Great War memory started to stage a major comeback in the south.

Yes, there are still people who write letters to the editors of the Irish Times every year condemning those sporting poppies in early November, but support for recovering and appreciating Ireland’s role in the First World War is more evident. The key to this turnaround has been targeting younger generations who are more receptive to a complex view of Irish history.

For example, the Somme Heritage Centre in Newtownards, County Down creates programming aimed at school age children and makes a concerted effort to highlight the role that all Irish participants played in the war. Similarly, the construction of the Island of Ireland Peace Park in France enlisted the help of many Irish youths in a cross-community effort to build awareness for this aspect of shared history and to simultaneously foster positive relationships between traditionally antagonistic groups.

Next year begins the centennial anniversary of the First World War and will provide the Irish with ample opportunities to grapple with their legacy in that conflict. The centennial is also a chance for the Irish to continue to current trend, especially in the south, whereby Great War memory has moved from a contested to a consensus space.