“Neither for King nor Empire”: Irish Remembrance of the Great War in the 1920s
This article addresses the difficulties of Irish remembrance of the Great War from 1923 to 1930. This period of the Irish Free State, newly independent of the British Empire, demonstrates the difficulties for a new state in crafting their national identity in the wake of empire and the problem of remembering events that do not easily fit into a new national narrative. The different spheres of remembrance that interacted and influenced the way the Irish came to understand their Great War experience are examined.
Wars are rarely integrated into a national narrative with ease, particularly for a new nation. While the Great War was interwoven into the tapestry of British history, it remained a difficult subject for the Irish. Although the Irish voluntarily sent 210,000 Irishmen to war, roughly forty percent of their service age population, between 1914 and 1918 the postwar period was rife with questions about loyalty, empire, and remembrance. For men like James Clifford, who served at the Battle of Gallipoli and lost his arm at Loos, the 1920s in Ireland represented a repression of the war experience. His brother’s wife, an ardent nationalist, forbid discussion of Clifford’s service and threw away his medals and mementos of the war out of disdain for these symbols of an oppressive imperial conflict. 1
The familial censorship by Clifford’s sister-in-law was not unlike what would happen in the public realm during the 1920s. It was during the early 1920s that the Irish experienced significant violence in their bid for independence, and in the wake of this violence, the Irish had to decide what an independent Ireland would represent. The rise of the republicans and their contextualization of the Great War as an imperial one meant that official and popular remembrance of the war was fraught with tension. Yet despite this current of chaos, on a personal level many Irish people found ways of remembrance and commemoration that were solidified during this period. During the 1920s the Irish Free State was in the most nebulous period of its relationship with the experience of the Great War. It was during this era that the Irish people negotiated what role the Great War would have in their society. Because the government took an ambivalent stance on remembering the Great War, the fate of war remembrance was fought out in public sphere. Ultimately dissension over this issue, as played out in the public, relegated memory of the war to the personal level. Men like James Clifford had to find their own ways of commemorating a war that irrevocably altered so many lives.
While scholarship on Great War commemoration in Ireland has increased in the past fifteen years, these discussions often focus on one aspect of commemoration, most commonly monuments, parades, or memorials. Too few have examined the interplay between official, popular and personal forms of remembrance in the Irish Free State. These spheres of remembrance influenced and communicated with each other. Therefore we must consider each of them to fully understand remembrance of the Great War in the Free State. This is important, not only to gaining a more complete understanding of this moment in Irish history, but more importantly, this illuminates a little studied aspect of remembrance. Perhaps the Irish case can provide insight into other nations with difficult pasts to better understand how official, popular and personal remembrance interact, contest, and compete with each other.
Collective war memory, sometimes regarded as monolithic, is comprised of a complex interaction of official, popular, and personal remembrance. These spaces of memory communicate with and influence each other. Official spaces of memory often convey a specific meaning behind a war experience as endorsed by a government. This realm of memory can be contested, supported, or even ignored by popular or personal remembrance. Popular remembrance, sometimes called public memory, is represented by the differing layers of the populace which can find expression in newspapers, public speeches, song, etc. Personal war memory is expressed through private acts of remembrance like the creation of rituals within a family, by an individual, or through personal documents meant to encapsulate the memory of an event.
In their seminal works, George Mosse2 and Jay Winter3 attempted to flesh out the complexities of grief and the impulse to memorialize the Great War in Britain and Germany. What emerges from these works on Great War memory is that there were attempts across Europe to cope with the bloodshed of the war through commemoration and remembrance. While these attempts occurred at various levels, it is important to note that remembrance of the war was a phenomenon across Europe. Public and private attempts at commemoration were fueled by individuals because “states do not remember; individuals do, in association with other people.” 4 Therefore, as Winter argues, understanding the process by which individuals remember the past is important because it informs the public manifestations of remembrance. 5 So then individuals are the core of memory, and in the case of Winter’s study, Great War remembrance. He also asserts that groups of like-minded individuals form collectives that interact with other collective remembrances of the war.6 With this precedent set, this article pushes Winter’s premise further to reorient discussion of the memorialization of the Great War around the interaction of these layers or collectives of remembrance to better understand how war memories are created and sustained. This article argues for the importance of the interaction of these layers: governmental apathy and dissension within the popular sphere forced remembrance to the personal level.
In Ireland, instead of official methods creating a commemorative atmosphere with a semblance of popular support, there was a struggle to create either form of memory due to deep political divisions within Irish society. Yet people “needed to find a kind of solace, a way to live with their memories.” 7 49,500 Irish soldiers died in the conflict and thousands returned, many with debilitating chronic emotional, physical, and psychological problems stemming from their war experience. Forty percent of the Irish service age population volunteered and a quarter of them never returned. This meant that significant portions of the Irish were impacted by the war directly through war service or indirectly through family or friends. Personal remembrance occurs in every war-torn society, and the Irish certainly were not alone in their difficulty of post independence commemorations of wars fought under an empire. For the Irish it was at this personal and private level that remembrance of the Great War became isolated yet preserved as the only effective level of remembrance due to questions of imperialism and national identity. This article contends that in the early Free State we can see the contestation between these different layers of memory: ambivalence on the part of the government forcing the role of the war to be violently decided within the populace, the outcome of which was that the republican sentiment prevailed and individuals and families had to commemorate on a personal and private level in order to avoid slanderous claims of imperialism and anti-Ireland sentiment.
The end of the Great War was not the end of violence for the Irish. They were almost immediately plunged into a War for Independence against Britain which culminated in Irish independence in 1921. Under the treaty provisions with Great Britain, Ireland was partitioned, which meant that the northern six counties remained part of the United Kingdom, while the southern counties became the Irish Free State. Many republicans who had fought against the British during the War of Independence felt that partition was a sham committed by the British government, while others felt it was the best possible compromise. This disagreement over whether or not to accept the treaty led to the Irish Civil War, which ended in 1923, and the permanence of partition. As the newly independent Free State moved on from the horrors of almost a decade of war, this meant deciding which events and symbols would make their way into the new national narrative. While the 1916 Easter Rising, War of Independence, and Civil War entered the arena of potential inclusions alongside the Great War, each would find difficulty finding a seat in the emerging pantheon of Irish history.
The 1916 Easter Rising is often touted as the birth of independent Ireland. If any event of the early twentieth century offers the most clear-cut potential for inclusion as a site of memory for the Irish Free State, it is this. Yet even this event did not easily fit into the new Irish state. While the Rising with its heroes and idealistic hopes for Ireland seems the inception point for a birth of the state myth, in actuality remembrance of the rebellion was not an all-encompassing, uniting force. Both pro- and anti-Treatyites claimed the martyrs of the rebellion, which was untenable in the post Civil War period. The fact that both sides claimed these men and the event itself begged the question: How could the Rising be the creation of a state that had gone to war with itself? Politicians of all stripes attempted to claim the rebels of 1916 at one time or another to legitimize their party. 8 The Rising was often dragged into political debates in service to contemporary desires, and thus it was a fluid event that never became a coherent rallying point for the state. The specters of the dead “constantly disrupted all attempts at origin, continuity and history itself.” 9 Additionally, because “emphasizing one interpretation of the past necessarily meant marginalizing another,” the Rising might be usable to reconcile the pro – and anti-Treatyites but it would still marginalize Unionist and nationalist interests in the Great War. 10
The Rising was sometimes pitted against the 1916 Battle of the Somme. The Somme became a badge of honor for the Unionists, who viewed their bloodletting on this battlefield as evidence of their loyalty to Britain and a reinforcement of their contract with the Empire. 11 This was contrasted with the Rising, which reinforced the nationalist Catholic agenda for independence, and was soaked in the religious connotations of martyrdom, redemption, and sacrifice. 12 These events became counter-narratives to each other and to the larger debates that had long faced Protestants and Catholics in the country. The Somme was held up to “contrast the centrality of the Rising” and the Rising allowed republicans to emphasize their opposition to the Unionist/Protestant agenda. 13 These diametrically opposed positions on two of the most important events of the early twentieth century in Ireland dramatically affected how the Great War was understood in the Free State. While the Rising was not easily commemorated, the Great War became associated with the Unionist/Protestant agenda such that “discursive imaginings of the First World War are thus inextricably connected to the dynamics of political conflict and divided loyalties in Ireland, and are themselves contested.” 14
If the Easter Rising did not clearly fit into a new Irish narrative, how could the Great War, the War for Independence, or the Civil War, all of which were arguably even more complex in their meaning for the Free State? They were uncomfortable reminders of the tensions between the government and ardent republicans. 15 The War for Independence, seemingly destined for commemoration, was marred by intense Treaty debates and the Civil War which followed. The ghost of the Civil War hung over the memory of the War for Independence, making it difficult to use it as a unifying event, since it led to more war. The Civil War presented a challenge since, as all such conflicts do, it had divided the nation, and celebrating the pro-Treaty victory was seen as only furthering those divisions. As Anne Dolan argues, the Civil War was difficult to integrate into the Free State narrative, partially because both the pro- and anti-Treatyites wore their service proudly, which begs the question, “After civil war can the winners honour their victory; can they commemorate it [...] with the blood of their comrades still fresh on their boots?” 16 Though President Cosgrave attempted to use the Civil War to boost his Cumann na nGaedheal party, which took power when the Civil War ended, ultimately the conflict did not retain a prominent position as a commemorative event in the Free State. The complexities of remembering an event that tore the nation asunder and continued to breed bad blood proved too difficult. This war had been a dirty one, won through “atrocity and execution, lacking the requisite laurels and blazes of glory,” so it became necessary to repress some memories in order to get on with governing the Free State after 1923. 17 The Civil War became the dividing line for politicians in the Free State and “rehashing the old row seemed somehow more alluring than the reality that politics had retreated to the unheroic inanities of living the independence they had coveted for so long.” 18 For much of the Free State, the Civil War was not past, but present. The fact that it was constantly affixed to political parties and arguments meant that commemorating it, at least publicly, was a difficult endeavor. Much like remembrance of the Great War, this remembrance was also relegated on a private level, as noted in Anne Dolan’s work. While the two events bear some similarity in this fact, they are vastly different, in that the Civil War difficulties in remembrance were due to destruction of Irishman against Irishman in a fight for the direction of the independent state, whereas remembrance of the Great War came to represent a battle of national identity and the rejection of empire.
The constant struggle against the British government led many republican leaders to shun any residual connections with the Empire after independence. Other European nations sought to commemorate and make sense of the Great War tragedy in the 1920s. After 1923 Ireland sought to establish itself as a new nation. Though Ireland, like Finland and Czechoslovakia, was newly independent after the war, Ireland’s independence came at the cost of both a war for independence and civil war that further embedded fierce dissension over their former imperial rulers. Unionists, predominantly Protestants, rejected this new independence from Britain. Because Unionists treasured their imperial connection, commemorating the war was far easier than for Irish republicans, who were predominantly Catholic. During the 1920s those few Unionists within the Free State became inextricably linked by the government and in the public eye with Great War commemoration. In its attempt to eschew British ties, the Free State government also eschewed ties with the Great War. Because the Irish fought in the Great War under the British flag it was seen as a British war for imperial gain and had no place in the new national narrative of an independent Ireland. This attempt to eradicate British ties would have significant consequences for ex-serviceman, their families, and the families of those who did not return.
The 1920s was a decade of tremendous contestation about the perceived imperial legacy of the Great War in the Free State. The government had to walk a fine line of allowing Armistice Day ceremonies, while also appearing as a strong nation independent of Britain. It was so near to the end of the war it would have been politically inadvisable to disallow such commemorative activities. President W. T. Cosgrave’s administration did not desire to stop them altogether, yet Armistice Day celebrations were not government funded, nor were they attended by major leaders. The administrations of the 1920s essentially walked a tightrope between republican sentiment, which desired a total excision of everything British (and therefore imperial), and the rest of the Irish population. They were trying not to look too British, while acknowledging that there was a demand for these services. Ultimately the administration of the 1920s allowed parades and services but did not endorse them. The Great War and its combatants were not part of the new Irish nation and therefore would not garner its support. This would cause debates over the role of the First World War and its potential as an imperial symbol to be negotiated in the public sphere.
Armistice Day parades, which commemorated the end of the Great War, took place in many European nations and often served as a national moment of mourning and commemoration. Though the government allowed Armistice Day parades in the Free State, many members of the government and their affiliated agencies felt such commemorative acts were imperialist in nature and would only cause violence. Military marches involving British Army uniforms, standards, the Union Jack flag, or anything deemed militaristic in the parades were regarded as especially dangerous, prompting this response from Chief Superintendent of the Ennis Garda Edward O’Dufy in 1928,
“The Armistice parade [...] was a definite Imperialistic display, and not a commemoration to the war dead, as it ought to have been. The continuance of exhibitions of this kind which are hateful in the eyes of nine-tenths of the people will undoubtedly court trouble. It is not suggested that any action should be taken against the men concerned on this occasion, but I respectfully beg to renew my recommendation to have permission for such displays refused in future years.”19
O’Dufy viewed the parade as a demonstration of the British Empire which would only cause problems among those who viewed the Empire as a former oppressor. In his request to have such parades banned O’Dufy was not alone. A letter stamped “secret” to the secretary of the Department of Justice argued that these marches were “intended much more as a military display than a bona fide commemoration service for the dead, to which latter there can be no objection, though there appears no necessity to perpetuate this form of ceremony.” 20 It is clear some government officials felt that commemorations were not necessary to the Free State, although they were willing to allow them as long as such events were devoid of military displays which promoted the British Empire. In both cases, the authors note that if such an event was devoid of imperial symbols and tone and was purely an act of remembrance, parades would be acceptable. Herein lies the larger difficulty for the Irish of the Free State: how intertwined was the Empire and postwar commemoration? As to whether or not remembering the war could be extricated from the Empire, that would ultimately be decided in the public sphere.
This perceived intertwining of empire, the war, and Armistice Day caused the Free State government concern that Great War remembrance activities were causing more harm than good. The early morning violence of November 11, 1928 seemed to bear this out. At various locations around the island, bombs exploded near monuments to British kings and poppy21 depots were ransacked. A movie theater was raided and the film Verdun, set to show the next day, was stolen. 22 Such violence against symbols of the war was problematic for the Free State government and though they did not endorse such violence, they did not endorse the commemorative symbols either. The new government was stuck.
The Irish Free State government attempted to appease the organizers of the Armistice Day celebrations while simultaneously withholding direct support to mollify republican sentiment. Although they took an official stance of ambivalence towards the symbols and ceremonies of the war, this period of post-civil-war tension was one of negotiating the new state’s symbols. Symbols are integral to the visualization of a new state “and they play an important role in creating emotionally charged bonds of social solidarity.” 23
Just as symbols can breed solidarity and national identity, they can breed dissension. As the Irish of the Free State attempted to craft an independent national identity they had to decide which symbols would represent them. Officially the state chose the green, white, and orange tricolor flag, a symbol born out of the republican movement, as the official state flag. This decision was highly contentious since those who had won the civil war and were in government chose it, while the losing side also felt the tricolor was their symbol. Enter into this debate the Union Jack and “God Save the King,” traditional symbols of the British Empire and its army. Republicans saw these symbols as evidence of an imperial minority representative of the centuries Ireland had endured under the boot of the British Empire. 24 As such, the Union Jack and British anthem become inextricably linked with empire and the Great War in this heady era of negotiating national identity. What is unfortunate about this simplistic view is that it does not allow for more complicated understandings of these symbols. While there were undoubtedly many who sympathized with the British, there was also a strong contingency of those who saw these symbols as commemorative of the Great War rather than imperial fervor. It is this debate over symbols and the identity of the Irish nation that would come to a head in the public sphere over popular remembrance.
Questions over a permanent representation of war through a memorial also fueled debates over the role of the war in Ireland’s identity. While England, Germany, and France were busily erecting war monuments in the 1920s, the proposed monument in the Free State caused outcry and debate. War memorials and monuments present an opportunity for people of a nation to reflect and grieve. 25 The arguments and delays that would plague the Irish attempt to create a national memorial for the Great War demonstrate a loss of this opportunity to reflect and grieve publicly.
From the initial proposition in 1919, the national war memorial took twenty years and multiple redesigns before it came to fruition. These delays and arguments demonstrate how divided the government and Irish public was over commemorating the war. The first proposal for a memorial veteran’s home, submitted by the Comrades of the Great War organization, was rejected by the government on the practical grounds that, although they had raised £50,000, the group had no long-term plans for funding. Changing tack, in 1924 a second proposal was submitted to the government for a war memorial in Merrion Square in Dublin. This proposal met with stiff resistance in the Dáil (parliament). Some argued that a memorial was a poor way to assist ex-servicemen, many of whom were disabled and would benefit from social services, as evident in one Irishman’s comment, “If the Irish Imperialists wish to show an appreciation of the heroism that gave Britain and her Allies the victory of 1918, let them attend to the survivors of the War who are in need of such help. Dead men cost nothing to maintain.” 26 This was a prevalent opinion among many Irish people who believed that a memorial did little to ease the suffering of ex-servicemen. The author’s equation of the Comrades Association with imperialists shows how supporting remembrance of the war publicly became interlinked with support of the British Empire.
Dissenting voices from the government often argued that such a physical representation of the war would ultimately be a memorial to the British Empire and send the wrong message to the world about the new Irish state. Placement of the memorial in Merrion Square, disturbingly close to the seat of government, was also a point of contention. While some government leaders argued that a memorial was acceptable, they disputed the Merrion Square location, contending that it should be farther from government buildings, so as not to give the impression that the Great War was in any way connected with the Free State government. 27 Here, as with debates over the usefulness of Armistice parades, “private grief and public acknowledgment constantly conflicted with each other.” 28 The government sought to allow the expression of remembrance, as long as said remembrance did not taint the identity of the new state with its perceived imperial symbolism.
By 1927 there was no consensus on the memorial and the proposal was withdrawn from the Dáil. Undaunted by the amount of controversy the memorial created, the planners restructured their next proposal for a memorial archway to Phoenix Park, the largest park in Dublin and central to the city. This proposal was rejected in 1928. Within a decade of the first proposal the Dáil had rejected three memorials, at which the organizers inquired if any area of the park would be amenable. They were offered Islandbridge, an area far from the seat of the government, and in 1931 a model for a memorial on the site was approved. Construction began in early 1932 and President Cosgrave requested that Irish ex-servicemen comprise fifty percent of the work force. After a decade of political wrangling, the Great War national monument was finally approved, although it was not government funded. The Free State government’s approach to this problem of remembering a war with perceived imperial tones demonstrates the larger concerns over Ireland’s new identity. While the monument was completed in 1939 on the outskirts of Dublin, it never had an official opening ceremony and almost immediately fell into disrepair. The monument could hardly have been less integral to the new state’s national identity, thus demonstrating that the Free State government saw no place for the Great War in Ireland. While the government did not ban Armistice parades or the monument, they established a stance of ambivalence and apathy which forced discussion of the war’s role to take place in the popular sphere.
Questions over national identity and the place of the Great War found expression and debate in public remembrance. While official remembrance was marred by internal ambivalence bordering on the hope that such commemorative activities would soon dissipate, popular memory was far more openly opinionated. The debates over the National Memorial engendered commentary from the public; some believed that a stone monument was not the best way to assist the ex-servicemen. In the poem “Broken Soldier” S. J. Fitzgerald wrote “Stone crosses help not those who languish/In fetid slum – in want and cold” noting later in the poem “They need no monument, psalm or psalter, /But a chance t[o] live; they are destitute.” 29 Many Irish recognized the plight of returned soldiers yet felt the best way to help them was not through parades or monuments but through social programs.
Others voiced their dissent of an imperial display more starkly, “We are pleased to know that the renewal effort to make Merrion Square a permanent monument to British jingoism, while men who took part in the different bloody battles are in want and dire hardship, is not likely to be successful.” 30 The connection of the Great War to the British was made all the more evocative by a contributor to Honesty31 in November 1926, who argued that memorials to the Irishmen of the Great War were tantamount to memorializing the Black and Tans. The Black and Tan police force, utilized by the British during the War of Independence from 1919–1921, had a sinister reputation in Ireland for their wanton use of violence. In response to the Merrion Square proposal the author argued, “Have we not... quite sufficient memorials already up and down through the country to the memory of the infamous ‘Black and Tans’ in the shape of the many crosses... that mark the scenes of their brutal murders?... No further memorial of a kind such as is contemplated in Merrion Square is needed.” 32 The comparison of Irish soldiers of the Great War to the Black and Tans, a group perceived by many Irish as brutes of the Empire, was, perhaps, the most incendiary connection possible. By arguing that “For an Irishman, therefore, Poppy Day is simply a memorial to the ‘Black and Tans’,” the author implied that Irish soldiers were no better than the men that had terrorized the Irish during the War of Independence. 33 The author’s assessment of the Irish exservicemen shows that for some republicans, an Irishman in British uniform was no Irishman at all. The fact that the Black and Tans had terrorized the Irish people and the Irish soldiers had fought in France, Gallipoli, etc. made no difference. Irish soldiers were guilty of being imperialists because of the uniform they once wore. Because of their service to Britain they were guilty by association.
The emotional fervor attached to the question of imperialism fueled violence, particularly against ex-servicemen or those participating in commemorative events. One aspect of Armistice Day commemorations that resulted in violence was the wearing of the Flanders poppy. The poppy was a symbol of the Great War across Europe and was sold to raise money for the British Legion, an organization which provided services for ex-servicemen. Antipathy for this symbol of the imperial war was widespread among Irish republicans. On November 7, 1925 John Brennan wrote in the newspaper Honesty, that the poppy was “the emblem of sleep for the dead and ‘dope’ for the living.” 34 Brennan observed the dire situation of ex-servicemen in the Free State and noted that no one was helping them find employment. They were offered “instead, a poppy flower once a year – a little insidious flower, from which is gathered the opium to drug and enslave the masses of India and China, and the workers of England and Ireland.” 35 Furthermore, in Brennan’s estimation, the republicans did not deny the bereaved their grief or need to remember, rather they were concerned that the popularity of the poppy was “an attempt to fasten the minds of the workers on the glory of sacrifice for imperial purposes, so that when again the recruiting sergeant makes his appearance in our streets – and our pulpits – he can call upon the ‘poppy seeds’ to go across the seas and renew the blood-red crop.” 36 So within the popular sphere of remembrance was a concern that the bereaved were duped by imperialists into wearing a symbol of empire to commemorate their dead and wounded: “you whose dead lie in foreign fields or in Irish prison graves, remember your dead in your prayers, but do not play England’s game by swallowing the poppy drug and wearing England’s emblem this November eleventh.” 37 Like the arguments of government officials, this author contends that if remembrance could be stripped of imperial symbols, in this case the poppy, then it could accurately commemorate the dead. What begins to emerge here is the republican wish for the symbolism to disappear, yet it is often within the symbols that people found solace and solidarity.
Others were angrier than Brennan in their assessment of the use of the poppy on Armistice Day. In an open letter to Honesty an anonymous writer rages against the poppy sellers, “Your motives are hatred of Ireland, rather than love of the dead... You know that as well as I do, but your mission is Imperialism, your tools the ex-soldiers...” 38The author goes on to suggest that the Irish are willing to pray for ex-soldiers and the dead of the Great War, but that if these imperial symbols are not disused, violence will ensue. 39 Such virulent reactions to the poppy demonstrate the enormity of the debate over identity, symbolism and memory in the Free State. To some the poppy was a physical representation of the soldier’s experience, particularly on the Western Front, of the horror and bloodbath of war. To others it was a symbol of Irishmen sent to fight, yet again, for the British, in an imperial war that only caused the Irish harm.
Far from being just words, this tension over the remembrance of the Great War took to the streets. On Armistice Day 1925 Dublin experienced violence between the commemorative crowd and republicans. Smoke bombs were thrown at the Celtic Cross at Trinity College while members of the crowd attempted to continue singing “God Save the King.” The Irish tricolor flag was flown alongside the Union Jack, causing no end of frustration to those who saw these symbols as antithetical to each other. The smoke bombs caused chaos resulting in poppy wearers chasing non poppy wearers, with the Irish Civil Guard in hot pursuit. The day was also marked by the burning of a Union Jack by college students in front of Trinity College. 40 The city of Cork also experienced violence during the 1925 Armistice Day events. A Celtic Cross memorial was the focus of an explosion. Originally built to honor the dead of the South African War, after the Great War it became the focus of Armistice activities. This was the second attack on this particular memorial and the Cork Examiner notes that, prior to the attempted destruction, an Armistice wreath was burned. 41 According to the Cork Examiner, 5,000 ex-servicemen participated in the Armistice parade that year; the newspaper noted that both Catholic and Protestant church services were held for the purpose of commemoration. 42
Acts of violence toward commemorative acts and sites were frequent in the Irish Free State in the 1920s, yet not all resulted in such direct violence. During a 1926 Dublin memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Anglican Church of Ireland) a crowd of ardent republicans consisting of thirty Fianna Fáil scouts demonstrated outside. One young man argued, “We won’t recognize Imperial demonstrations. We respect these people’s church: but we won’t have Union Jacks flying.” 3 These comments indicate that the young man saw a separation between protesting the Protestant church itself and protesting the memorial service. He took offense specifically at the memorial service and the imperial symbolism of the Union Jack. The crowd marched outside blasting bugles and shouting “Up with the IRA!”. 44 This public attempt by republicans to disrupt the memorial service was a less violent, yet revealing incident. Though the demonstrators may have seen themselves as protesting commemoration of the Great War that happened to take place in a Protestant church, ultimately they were protesting at an Anglican church holding a memorial service for the dead. This shows just how inextricably the war was bound up with the British Empire. The public sphere of remembrance was increasingly overshadowed by the violent rejection of perceived British imperialism.
The frequency of these types of protests at Protestant churches furthered the republican concept that the war and those who commemorated it were imperialists and/or Unionists. Clearly not all protesters drew a direct connection between their demonstration against imperial symbols and the Protestant church, as evident from the young man’s statement above. Even so, these confrontations were often violent or, at the very least, drew attention and made newspaper headlines. This brought attention to the protests and, for those republicans who did equate Protestantism with the empire and the war, furthered their own belief and helped
Even as acts of violence were occurring, in Cork in 1925 there were also attempts to remember the war in a more honorary manner. On the local level, sometimes small memorials or commemorative plaques were created for the fallen of that town. On Armistice Day 1925 the Cork Young Men’s Association unveiled a Memorial Room and tablet in Gregg Hall of the Incorporated Church of Ireland in honor of their members who fell in the Great War. In attendance were families of the deceased, members of the British Legion and the Independent Ex-Service Club. Fifty-nine men from the Young Men’s Association died in the war and it was noted that, “their names, which were engraved on the tablet would never be forgotten; they would be remembered with pride and gratitude (applause). They did not fail in their great fight for justice and right.” 45 Even as contingents attempted to tear apart Armistice Day events, local groups sought to remember and commemorate. That this, like so many across the Free State, was a Protestant church event attended by the British Legion, an organization seen as the pinnacle of imperial vestiges by many, further intertwined war remembrance with supporters of the Empire.
Some businesses, predominantly Protestant owned, also attempted to memorialize the war. Guinness published a commemorative book, the Roll of Employees Who Served in His Majesty’s Naval, Military and Air Forces, 1914–1918 in 1920. This book listed each name of the 800 Guinness employees who served in the war, including the 100 who died. 46 This book was published not for public consumption, but for the men who served and the families of the fallen. The intent of the volume was to provide some recognition for the men’s service: “To those who fell we render reverent homage; to those who survive we offer this small, but none the less sincere, expression of heartfelt gratitude.” 47 The short introduction alludes to the perspective of the company on these men’s service, “who gave their services – and in many instances, their lives – for the defense of the Empire at the most perilous and critical period of its history.” 48 It is important to note that this book was published during the War for Independence between Ireland and Britain, yet the Guinness Company was able to differentiate between the service of the soldiers and the contemporary conflict. Even so, the connection of the war as one for the protection of the British Empire was ingrained during the 1920s Irish Free State. The Congested Districts Board and the Bank of Ireland also produced commemorative books for the families of their employees. These publications were easier to justify for Protestant-owned businesses due to long-held connections between Protestants and the British. These commemorative books were small succor for the loss of a father, son, or brother but they were a gesture of support for those affeccted by the war.
Despite acts of violence and harassment towards those who strove to publicly cope with their grief, there were those who supported open remembrance that sought to distance remembrance from the imperial stigma. In response to the success of Cork’s Poppy Day, held on November 14, 1925, the Cork Examiner offered this assessment, “to the generous spirit of Cork’s citizens, who, recognizing the debt of gratitude which is owed to the erstwhile defenders of ours whom the times have treated harshly, gave freely and ungrudgingly, and in token wore the Flanders Poppy ‘In Remembrance’.” 49 This article distanced the poppy and those who wore it from the imperial stigma, asserting that many people were buying them out of gratitude for the soldiers’ sacrifice rather than in support of Britain. A year later the newspaper furthered their argument concerning the true nature of the poppy as a symbol: “[...] the Flanders Poppy, chosen because [...] for us in these islands the Western Front was the centre of our interest, and much of that eight hundred mile battleline ran through Flanders fields, where in its season the poppy showed its brilliant red on every side – its emblem of the red carnage of war.” 50 Others sought to reclassify the Great War in Ireland as one that deflected the darkness of German imperialism, arguing that “theirs was the task, and what greater or nobler under the heavens, to aid those who were answering the Prussian demand to rule the world with a spirit-stirring ‘No!’ that was thundered high above the dreadful diapason of Germany’s greatest guns.” 51 The rhetoric of anti-imperialism raises its head again, yet the author of the newspaper article attempts to shift the tone of his criticism towards German imperialism rather than British. This was an attempt, however unsuccessful in the long run, that at least tried to reorient discussion of the empire and the Great War toward the continent, rather than Ireland’s long, checkered past with Britain.
Violence against supporters of commemorations juxtaposed with this minority of supportive voices meant that republican sentiment prevailed in the fight over the role of the Great War. Even those who supported public remembrance did so for different reasons, some out of imperial allegiance, others out of satisfaction that German imperialism was defeated, and still others out of gratitude for the willing service of the soldiers. While no war engenders one unified popular memory, what is significant in the case of Ireland is just how violently the popular memory of the war was torn apart and how, within only a short time, the war was inextricably linked to the British Empire in a way that would preclude public commemorations devoid of the imperial stain. Ultimately, the decreasing interest in Armistice celebrations stemming from this violent disagreement over the role of the Great War worked in the government’s favor. In the opinion of many government leaders, the war was a British one, and they only bowed to public pressure in allowing commemorations. The public debate over the role of Great War remembrance was ultimately won by republican sentiment.
Despite the problems in creating official or popular remembrance, those affected by the war found other ways to remember and commemorate because “families and communities must repair the rent in the domestic and social fabric.” 52 Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering on the American Civil War gets at the core of the difficulties in commemorating the dead of a war when those dead seemingly have no positive place in the national narrative. She argues that regardless of which side the dead fought for, their relatives felt compelled to restore meaning to their deaths. This is similar to the Irish affected by the Great War. Personal grief and strife rarely follow political boundaries; many families affected by the war simply wanted to remember, and entered into the identity debate when accused of being imperialists. “Death without dignity, without decency, without identity imperiled the meaning of the life that preceded it,” and many affected by the war felt compelled to bestow some meaning upon that loss. 53 When told that a relative’s sacrifice in the war was unworthy of commemoration because it was conducted in service to the British Army, it is reasonable to suggest that many Irish resented that the meaning they bestowed on death and service was stripped away. Approximately 50,000 Irish families were bereft of a member and 150,000 coped with an ex-serviceman’s survival. Personal remembrance endured despite the violence and ambivalence of the 1920s and found a way to express itself in a less public, more private manner that enabled distance from ardent republican accusation.
For some Irish, this personal remembrance began during the war, as Irishmen were felled across the Western Front. Diaries of the women left at home provide significant insight into how remembrance of the war was created on a personal level almost immediately. The diary scrapbook of Mrs. Emilie Harmsworth provides just such an insight. In lieu of a funeral and burial for the fallen, this scrapbook takes the place of a physical manifestation of mourning. This commemorative scrapbook contains only information relating to the death of her brother. It is a relatively thin book of about forty pages of letters and other documents. There is no inscription on the front cover and the documents immediately jump into information concerning Emilie’s brother. Clearly from the organization of the book it was intended for herself and her family, who would already be familiar with the background of the situation.
On October 24, 1914 Emilie received the devastating telegram that her brother Henry was killed in action at the Battle of Ypres. In the British Army since 1894, Henry was a captain in the Leinster regiment. Emilie and Henry were the youngest of thirteen children born to a barrister in Finglas, Co., Dublin, and were only a year apart in age. By the time of the Great War both had entered their early forties, yet Henry never married. It is significant to note that the War Office telegram, in addition to all major communication concerning Henry’s death, was sent to Emilie rather than their older siblings. That she was designated as his next of kin speaks to the closeness of their relationship. Although the death letter informed Emilie of the end of Henry’s life, it was the start of a much longer process for her, because, as Faust notes, for survivors “...death was literally endless.” 54
This process began with three years of letter-writing for Emilie, starting almost immediately, when she wrote to members of Henry’s regiment for his affects and confirmation that he was, in fact, dead. For a month after the telegram, Emilie feverishly communicated with soldiers in the Leinster regiment, hopeful that her brother was instead a prisoner of war. After several letters confirming her brother’s death and burial, by early 1915 Emilie shifted her letter-writing to having Henry’s last possessions returned to her. 55 From her actions it is clear that Emilie was emotionally traumatized by her brother’s violent end. It is not unusual that she was this fixated on the events surrounding his death. It is almost as though she believed that more information might equal understanding of what seemed to be a senseless death.
Each letter written to her concerning locating and mailing her brother’s possessions was carefully incorporated into the scrapbook. Each bit of evidence of Henry’s death, letters of condolence from his regiment, the death telegram, Emilie’s last postcard returned, and Henry’s last postcard were carefully included. Even the War Office listing that accompanied her brother’s possessions is included in this memento of her brother’s death. As Emilie’s letter-writing campaign shifted from determining if Henry was a POW, to gaining her brother’s possessions, to ascertaining the details of his last moments, she carefully kept the reply letters that indicate her ongoing desire to accumulate everything concerning Henry’s death. 56 While Emilie created the scrapbook to preserve the memory of her brother’s death, it was also a physical means of passing on his memory to her children. They were old enough to have known their uncle but, given the closeness between Emilie and Henry, it is reasonable to suggest that she most likely worried that his absence from the rest of their lives would cause him to fade in their memories.
Like so many heartbroken women before her, by tracking down the physical remnants of Henry’s life, Emilie attempted to make his death real because lacking a body made acceptance difficult and denial easy. 57 Funerals allow the bereaved a public and formal method of expressing their grief. 58 In lieu of this act of mourning women like Emilie had to create their own methods of mourning, and in her case, the scrapbook about Henry’s death was that method. Like the survivors of the American Civil War, Emilie and thousands of Irish families had to integrate the experience of war death into their lives often without the benefit of traditional death ceremonies. 59 The scrapbook of Henry’s death was his funeral, his tombstone to be revisited through the years in remembrance.
Like Emilie Harmsworth, ex-servicemen also struggled to remember a war they had survived while so many died. With the atmosphere of commemoration making public remembrance uncomfortable at best, and violent at worst, during the 1920s ex-servicemen increasingly found their own quieter moments of remembrance. These were devoid of disparaging comments accusing them of being imperialists. For some, like Bartholomew Hand, a veteran of Gallipoli, taking his son Paddy, to the War Memorial at Islandbridge every time they rode their bicycles in Dublin was a way to remember his service and his comrades, and to pass along that experience without the tumult of the organized events. On these bicycle rides Hand showed Paddy churchyards where his fellow Gallipoli veterans were buried. Paddy recalled that it was not until later in life that he realized this had been a pilgrimage for his father. 60
Other ex-servicemen also had difficulty remembering the war and their fallen comrades in the politically tense atmosphere of the 1920s where attending commemorative events branded them as imperialists. Many of these men saw themselves as Irishmen and republicans and found this branding contemptible. Still, they desired a way to commemorate their experience. Like Bartholomew Hand, Bernard Flood found attending Armistice Day activities difficult, viewing them as bombastic events in honor of a horrible experience. However, Flood found his own way to remember his fallen friends. Every year Flood laid a wreath at the war memorial in Drogheda. 61 Though Flood refused to discuss his war service, he commemorated it with his own pilgrimage, devoid of the political tensions over imperial symbolism.
Some men braved Armistice Day events in spite of the imperialist slander they were often branded with. After the war Kieran White had to contend with this imperial slander from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) men. White confronted one these men and a fight ensued, in which White was the resounding victor. White later explained that he did it “so [he] could always hold [his] head high.” 62 He further challenged the expectations around him by making appearances at local Armistice Day events regardless of gossip. In an era where the IRA represented some of the staunchest republicans, White’s willingness to defend his British army service demonstrates that ex-servicemen were subjected to harassment based on the sole fact that they were former British soldiers rather than members of the IRA. Some ex-servicemen chose not to engage with this harassment or commemorations for fear of persecution. White chose to defend himself and to attend Armistice Day activities, knowing full well the tensions inherent in doing so.
Memoirs also represent personal forms of memory. In the 1920s Frank Laird wrote of the harrowing experience on Gallipoli in 1915. He wrote only for himself and had no intention of publishing his account. He wrote “the memory of D Company remains supreme as a possession forever and to meet an old D company man afterwards was always to find a friend.” 63 It was after his death in 1925, as a result of wounds to his lungs sustained on Gallipoli, that his wife and sister organized his writings for publication. So while Laird’s writings were very personal and intended to memorialize his experience and fellow soldiers, the publication by his family was yet another expression of personal remembrance. These women clearly regarded the publication as a way to remember Laird.
Mementos of the war often provided ex-servicemen or their families a venue for remembrance. Sometimes a war medal, a last letter or postcard, the death telegram, or, in the case of Jeremiah Fitzgerald, a photograph, became a constant venue of commemoration. At sixteen Fitzgerald enlisted in the British Army and fought at the Battle of Mons and Ypres. During the war he came into contact with Father Francis Gleeson from the Dublin archdiocese. Father Gleeson was a cherished addition to the Royal Munster Fusiliers, Fitzgerald’s regiment, credited with organizing the men for a counterattack against the German forces after the officer corps had taken heavy losses. This act, unusual for a member of the religious corps, was regarded as one of the utmost bravery. Father Gleeson’s courage, held in high esteem by Fitzgerald, led him to keep a picture of the Father with him for the rest of his life. 64 This was a positive and touching homage to a man he well regarded. A photograph, maintained for life, in this case is a clear memento of remembrance.
Others were tortured by their war experience and that of their families. William Grey of the Irish Guards enlisted following the death of his brother Edward at the Battle of Mons. Lacking specific details about Edward’s death, William enlisted to find out what happened. While in France William lost a length of bone on the Somme in 1917 and was discharged in 1918. Yet despite his emotional and physical losses, William did not uncover more about his brother’s fate. In the postwar period William agonized over Edward’s death and his failure to find out the facts. William was so tortured by Edward’s death that he frequently wept, saying, “Where is Eddie? What happened to him? Is he still alive?” 65 Such concerns occupied his thoughts for the rest of his life, and William died not knowing his brother’s fate. This obsession is an example of the personal grief that could find no respite and was indifferent to the politically tense realm of governmental ambivalence and popular anger.
So while the government saw no use for the Great War in the Free State and the discordant voices in the public argued over the potential imperial nature of commemoration, families and ex-servicemen were left to cope and remember largely on their own. Though Armistice parades carried on through the 1930s, the 1920s marks a period of negotiation over the symbols of memory and ultimately the new state’s identity. Questions over identity and the Great War’s role were fought out in the public realm with the government taking a backseat. As acts like wearing a poppy or attending a parade increasingly became contentious, families and ex-servicemen turned inward; this is a trend that would continue in the 1930s. Arguments over the new Irish identity would ultimately rule in favor of republican sentiment and the sphere of popular remembrance of the war would almost completely dissipate by the 1940s. Then it was only at the level of personal remembrance that the war was commemorated, even in the smallest ways. Ultimately the disputes over commemorating the Great War were a matter of whether or not a war fought under Britain could be included in an independent Ireland. It could not be integrated, as evident from the violent opposition and the resulting focus on more private commemorations. While official frameworks faltered and popular memory tore itself apart over the question of imperialism and identity, personal memorialization distanced itself from overtly public displays of remembrance in order to avoid the taint of imperialism with which republicans had branded the war.
Mandy Townsley. Doctoral candidate at Washington State University in the United States. Currently she is preparing a dissertation focusing on the concurrent remembering and forgetting of the Great War in Ireland during the Free State period.
1 Neil Richardson, A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall: Stories of Irishmen in World War I (Dublin: O’Brien Press Ltd, 2010), p. 44.
2 George Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
3 Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century (London: Yale University Press, 2006).
4 Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century (London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 4.
5 Winter, Remembering War, p. 4.
6 Winter, Remembering War, p. 4.
7 Winter, Remembering War, p. 7.
8 Rebecca Graff-McRae, Remembering and Forgetting 1916: Commemoration and Conflict in Post-Peace Process Ireland, (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010), p. 77.
9 Graff-McRae, p. 76.
10 Graff-McRae, p. 93.
11 Graff-McRae, p. 85.
12 Graff-McRae, p. 85.
13 Graff-McRae, p. 86.
14 Graff-McRae, p. 90.
15 Graff-McRae, p. 44.
16 Anne Dolan, Commemorating the Irish Civil War: History and Memory, 1923–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 4.
17 Dolan, Commemorating the Irish Civil War, p. 200–201.
18 Dolan, Commemorating the Irish Civil War, p. 201
19 NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Chief Superintendent Edward O’Dufy of Ennis Garda Nov. 12, 1928.
20 NAI JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from Coimisineir to the secretary of the Dept of Justice, Nov. 8, 1928.
21 The Flanders poppy was the designated symbol of Armistice Day across Europe, having grown on the Western Front.
22 NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from the Chief Superintendent of the Garda to the Secretary of the Department of Justice, November 21, 1928.
23 Ewan Morris, Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in 20th Century Ireland
24 Morris, p. 136.
25 Catherin Reinhardt, Claims to Memory: Beyond Slavery and Emancipation in the French Caribbean, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), p. 2.
26 Honesty, “Bread or Stones for Heroes. The Merrion Square Memorial-A Precedent from the Past,” January 16, 1926, 10–11.
27 Fergus D’Arcy, Remembering the War Dead: British Commonwealth and International War Graves in Ireland since 1914 (Dublin: Government Stationary Office, OPW, 2007), p. 176.
28 Nuala Christina Johnson, Ireland, the Great War and the Geography of Remembrance, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 91.
29 S. J. Fitzgerald, “Broken Soldier,” Honesty, January 30, 1926.
30 Honesty, “Hands off Merrion Square,” July 21, 1926, p. 12.
31 Honesty was noted by Joan Fitzpatrick Dean in Riot and Great Anger: Stage Censorship in Twentieth Century Ireland as a fairly progressive publication that addressed the taboo subjects of divorce, children borne out of wedlock and other issues of public morality (see page 116). It was a weekly journal published from 1925–1931 at which time it merged with the National Democrat to form Nationality.
32 Honesty, “Poppy Imperialism,” November 13, 1926, p. 9.
33 Honesty, “Poppy Imperialism,” November 13, 1926, p. 9.
34 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.
35 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.
36 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.
37 John Brennan, “Poppy Dope for the Irish Workers,” Honesty, November 7, 1925, p. 5.
38 Honesty, “An Open Letter to the Promoters of Poppy Day,” November 14, 1925, p. 6.
39 Honesty, “An Open Letter to the Promoters of Poppy Day,” November 14, 1925, p. 6.
40 Cork Examiner, “Smoke bombs thrown, Exciting Incidents in Dublin,” November 12, 1925, p. 7.
41 Cork Examiner, “Cork Explosion, Attempt to Blow Up a Monument,” November 16, 1925, p. 5.
42 Cork Examiner, “Cork Ex-Servicemen, Armistice Celebrations,” November 16, 1925, p. 8.
43 Cork Examiner, “Fianna Scouts, Demonstration Outside Dublin Cathedral,” November 9, 1926
44 Cork Examiner, “Fianna Scouts, Demonstration Outside Dublin Cathedral,” November 9, 1926.
45 Cork Examiner, “Cork Ceremony Unveiling a Memorial,” November 12, 1925, p. 7.
46 Guinness, Son & Co. Ltd, Roll of Employees Who Served in Hist Majesty’s Naval, Military and Air Forces, 1914–1918, (Dublin: Anthony Rowe Limited, 1920), p. 5.
47 Guinness, Son & Co Ltd, p. 5.
48 Guinness, Son & Co Ltd, p. 3.
49 Cork Examiner, “Cork’s Poppy Day,” November 17, 1925, p. 9.
50 Cork Examiner, “Cork’s Poppy Day,” November 12, 1926, p. 8.
51 Cork Examiner, “The Heroic Dead,” November 12,1924, p. 5.
52 Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Albert Knopf, 2008), XIV.
53 Faust, p. 268.
54 Faust, p. 144.
55 NLI, MS 46, 536 Papers in relation to Henry Telford Maffett, 2nd Batt Leinster Regiment.
56 NLI, MS 46, 536 Papers in relation to Henry Telford Maffett, 2nd Batt Leinster Regiment.
57 Faust, p. 146.
58 Faust, p. 153.
59 Faust, p. 267.
60 Philip Orr, Field of Bones: An Irish Division at Gallipoli (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2006), p. 220.
61 Richardson, p. 212.
62 Richardson, p. 215.
63 Frank Laird, Personal Experiences of the Great War (An Unfinished Manuscript), (Dublin: Eason and Son, Ltd, 1925), p. 48.
64 Richardson, p. 146–7.
65 Richardson, p. 169.
List of References
Guinness, Son & Co. Ltd. (1920) Roll of Employees Who Served in His Majesty’s Naval, Military and Air Forces, 1914–1918 (Dublin: Anthony Rowe Ltd).
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NAI JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from Coimisineir to the secretary of the Dept of Justice, Nov. 8, 1928.
NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Chief Superintendent Edward O’Dufy, of Ennis Garda Nov. 12, 1928.
NAI, JUS/8/684 Armistice celebrations and “Poppy Day” Department of Justice and Equality 1928–1936, Letter from the Chief Superintendent of the Garda to The Secretary of Dept of Justice, Nov. 21, 1928.
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This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.