Sometimes what people avoid saying is as important or more important than what they do say. A topical example: those Irishmen from the south of Ireland who died fighting in the First World War. For decades there was little public talk of them. The spotlight between 1914 and 1918 shone steadily on the memory of the men of the Easter Rising, not on the men who fought in the First World War. As the saying goes, they had been erased from history.
Nowadays things have changed. Last night Belfast City Council voted on a motion by the SDLP that the Irish government be invited to ceremonies to commemorate the Battle of the Somme and to Remembrance Sunday. Councillor Pat McCarthy said things were changing and that a decade ago the visit of the Queen to the south wouldn’t have been envisaged. “For a long time in the history of the Republic that period [World War I] was forgotten and was something which was never talked about”.
Wrong, Councillor McCarthy. The Irishmen who fought and died in the First World War were not forgotten and were talked about. I had two grand-uncles who died in the conflict and I remember my mother talking about them quite openly and frequently. Speaking to other Irish people whose relatives died in that war, the same story emerges – the framed photograph in the hall, the story of his leaving to join up, the news of the death at some remote front. What Councillor McCarthy presumably means – and most commentators like him – is that those Irishmen from the south who died were forgotten and not talked about at an official, public level. There is a difference. At the private, family level, those men were never forgotten, frequently spoken of.
Another fact not talked about when this subject arises is that the men who died in the First World War weren’t wearing German uniforms – they were wearing British uniforms. Slap bang in the middle of the First World War the Easter Rising occurred, and from there to the Black and Tan war was a short step of a few years. Who were the men of 1916 and those involved in the struggle for independence fighting against? Men wearing British uniforms. Thus at a public level it became very difficult to reconcile the value of those who had opposed British soldiers and the value of those who had joined with British soldiers. Not surprisingly, the southern state chose to have public remembrance of those who had fought British soldiers and to ignore those who had fought as British soldiers. That’s the reason why the there was public silence on those Irishmen who died fighting in the First World War, other than the occasional murmur of “Shameful!” The reasons behind the official silence – as distinct from private/family remembrance –was and is rarely addressed.
A final point: those Irishmen from the north and south who died in WWI battle are talked of as heroic, and the ghastly number of fatalities at the Somme and other battles are cited in evidence. Indeed – I certainly feel terrified even thinking about the conditions in which those men lived and died. But the notion that they all “answered the call” in a heroic way, keen to serve King and country, is to forget, erase, elide the memory of all those men – very likely the majority, if the history of recruitment over the centuries is looked at – who joined up because they had little or no alternative if they wanted to earn a living. The war itself was a pointless, imperial conflict sold as the war to end all wars.
So let’s watch if the remembrance of the Somme will include those awkward facts, when, as they’re certain to do, representatives from the south come trooping up. The way that Remembrance Sunday is normally observed, I’d say the chances of complete honesty about the war and the men who fought in it are zero.