A couple of weeks ago I was down to Dublin. As I made my way up Grafton Street and approached the arched entry to St Stephen’s Green, I was confronted by the sight of about fifty people standing gawking at a giant metal statue. As you probably know by now, this statue has been erected in honour of all the Irishmen who joined the British army and fought for Britain in the First World War.
Statues are very interesting. Besides their artistic qualities, they tell us who a society reveres, how the society sees the world and what its values are. This statue at St Stephen’s Green has excited a great deal of comment, in print and over the airwaves, all of it favourable.
Are those commenting struck by its aesthetic qualities? Well, maybe. It is a towering presence, unavoidable, and the way it’s been put together with bits of metal and gaps between the bits is sort of ingenious. But I don’t believe that’s the main reasons it’s getting such favourable coverage. It’s because Irish people, especially those in the south, feel somehow guilty that not enough attention has been paid to the Irishmen who fought and died in British uniform during the First World War. There is much talk of Irish society having now matured so that it feels able to give public expression to its admiration of these men.
Certainly there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of households in Ireland that have a family link to the First World War. Beyond that, of course, the British army has always been a magnet for young Irishmen who respond to its promise to let them see the world, develop a trade, have some fun.
But the First World War? It happened slap bang in the middle of our Decade of Centenaries, as it’s called, starting with signing of the Ulster Covenant, and running through the Easter Rising to the meeting of the First Dail, the Tan war, the civil war and finally partition in 1921.
What’s the theme in the decade of centenaries? That an overwhelming percentage of the Irish people wanted to govern their own affairs, and were opposed by a minority who wanted to have Britain continue to run their affairs. That desire for independence was sparked by the sacrifice of the Easter Rising, which was put down ruthlessly by the British army. The same British army which the giant tin soldier represents.
So of course the Irish people feel conflicted about the young men who left Ireland to fight and die in foreign fields under a British flag. They were our loved ones, they were duped by Redmond into joining the British army, they fought in a bloody imperial war, which achieved little beyond the death of millions and sowed the seeds of even more monstrous blood-letting two decades later.
The notion that the Irish people hid the fact that so many Irishmen perished in the Great War is class A codswallop. Pictures of these men, so young, had a place in thousands of Irish homes. They were identified, remembered with sadness. But most Irish people knew that their loved ones had been sacrificed for a lie, and that their war contrasted starkly with the Black and Tan war. One fought against British imperialism, the other for British imperialism. And to add to the emotional mix-up, many Irishmen like Tom Barry returned home from the British army to fight the British army.
All violent conflict is unspeakably horrible. But there is a difference between fighting in your own country, for your own country’s independence, and fighting in someone else’s country, for the maintenance of the British Empire.
When we become really mature as a people? Will it be when we start erecting statues to the warders and firing squads at Kilmainham Gaol?