Remembering to forget

Spurred by Elaine Byrne’s piece in the Guardian, discussed here, I have a longer piece in the Honest Ulsterman, so run over there and have a read.


It’s not that simple

[Edit 14/7/2014: This article is now superseded by a longer piece in The Honest Ulsterman]

Today’s Guardian carries an article from Elaine Byrne on the Irish who fought for Britain in the First World War. Without taking a view on the actions of those men, Byrne’s account of Irish memory of the conflict is very seriously flawed. Here:

It was not until 1988 that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, 5km from parliament on the outskirts of Dublin, were formally dedicated and opened to the public. The Queen’s visit to the Islandbridge memorial in 2011 was the first time that I became aware it existed.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens, constructed to a design by Lutyens, were indeed only formally dedicated in 1988. They were constructed, however, in the 1930s, with funding from the Irish government of Eamon De Valera, who would have been considered `anti-British’. Planning for the gardens, intended to commemorate all Irish people killed in the conflict, had begun under the government of W. T. Cosgrave in the 1920s. Both Cosgrave and De Valera had fought against Britain for Irish independence, and yet were keen to commemorate Irishmen who had fought for the former colonial power.

As for the gardens being 5km from `parliament’, that is about the distance from the Palace of Westminster to the far side of Hyde Park, hardly a trek requiring the use of pack animals and supply depots. Incidentally, the gardens are a kilometer, or fifteen minutes walk, from Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion were executed. If nothing else, the symbolism is pleasing.

Dr Byrne claims that she was not aware until 2011 that the gardens existed: there was a long public discussion about reopening them during the 1980s, largely driven by Kevin Myers in the Irish Times. The gardens were restored by the Irish Office of Public Works, i.e. the Irish state, and dedicated while Charles Haughey was Taoiseach. There was also a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme there in 2006, with the President and the Taoiseach, among others, in attendance, as well as the Irish Army band.

Dr Byrne continues:

The first world war was not taught in Irish schools. Most Irish people would be surprised to learn that an estimated 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army.

I left school in 1988 and most certainly learned, at school, about the first world war, and that Irishmen had fought in it. My parents had learned the same. Part of the nationalist narrative was that Irishmen under Redmond had been, in effect, tricked into fighting for Britain, which claimed to be defending the rights of small nations such as Belgium, and which had granted Home Rule to Ireland, though it clearly had no intention of imposing it. Whatever the validity of that narrative, it certainly did not ignore Irish involvement in the war. Indeed the `great Irish novel’, Strumpet City ends with a blacklisted striker from the 1913 Lockout enlisting in the British Army and leaving Dublin on a troop ship.

The history of the First World War, and of its memory, is quite complex enough; we are ill served by authors whose memory has clearly lost the struggle against forgetting.

Update 7 April 2014: In her original article Dr Byrne says this:

His attestation papers are a reminder of an Ireland that no longer exists. A handwritten “Yes” is placed beside the question, “Are you a British subject?” Sylvester did not know it then, but Ireland was on the cusp of the 1916 Easter Rising, which would come to define the nationalist narrative of post-independent Ireland. “I, Silvester James Cummins, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs, and Successors … So help me God,” reads the oath.

But he did not sign it. Sylvester spelt his name with a Y, not an I. A glance at other attestation papers of Irish recruits reveals blanks in the oath, or a signature different to that elsewhere. It is a small thing, but I noticed it, and 100 years later that dormant nationalism still matters somehow.

In a second article, Remembering my great-grandfather and the Irish heroes lost to history, Dr Byrne has an image of her great-grandfather’s attestation papers and the signature is clearly spelt `Sylvester’. The entries in different handwriting, spelt `Silvester’, were inserted by the recruiting officer. It appears very unlikely that Sylvester Cummins did not sign the attestation papers, or that the misspelling of his name was the result of some `dormant nationalism’.