Monday, November 12, 2007

Remembrance - By Gordon Lucy

Less than 2,000 – the actual figure is probably closer to 1,200 – men participated in the rebellion in Dublin during Easter week of 1916. By contrast over 200,000 men from this island served in the Great War, principally on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, in Salonika and in Palestine

Sixty-four insurgents were killed during the fighting of Easter week. Significantly more men died that same week on 27 April 1916 when the Germans launched a gas attack at Hulluch, near Loos, on men of the 16th (Irish) Division. Of the 1,980 casualties, 570 were killed and many subsequently died of respiratory diseases.

In all some 30,000 men from this island died in the Great War. Among the latter may be counted John Condon, aged 14, from Waterford, the youngest British soldier to be killed in the Great War; Maurice Dease of Mullingar, the first Irishman to win the Victoria Cross in the Great War; and Henry Taylor from Lifford, widely believed to have been the last soldier to be killed on the Western Front.

For many decades nationalist Ireland, officially, if not privately, chose to ignore its British military past, disregarding the sacrifice of Condon, Dease and Taylor and focusing almost exclusively on those who participated in the ‘blood sacrifice’ of 1916 and the 'War of Independence'. Those who served in the Great War (and even the Second World War) found it politic to remain silent about their experience and received no recognition.

Happily this, albeit belatedly, has changed. To a considerable extent the Remembrance Day massacre in Enniskillen on 8 November 1987 prompted a serious reappraisal of nationalist attitudes. The role of people like Kevin Myers, the journalist; Tom Burke of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association; Paddy Harte, the former Fine Gael politician; and many local historians, not least Jane Leonard, should also be generously acknowledged.

The refurbishment of the magnificent Islandbridge memorial in Dublin; the building of the Messines Peace Tower; the unveiling in Waterford of a memorial to those who died in the Great War, including John Condon; and the issue of a stamp commemorating, for the first time, those who died at the battle of the Somme; all these are extremely encouraging developments.

Last year both Dermot and Bertie Ahern made interesting observations about the past. Dermot Ahern opined that ‘we can no longer have two separate histories, separate and in conflict’, although the official celebration of the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising somewhat diminished the force of his assertion. Bertie Ahern claimed that without ‘a shared past’ we cannot have ‘a shared future’. Whereas the legacy of the events of Easter Week is divisive, there is no greater shared experience than the Great War.

An edited version appeared in the Irish News Saturday edition (9-11-2007)