WHAT at first evoked the sound of shells bursting on the Western Front, the recent remembrance events that marked the pointless slaughter of 49,400 young Irish men in the First World War soon disappeared from the public mind with the speed of demobbed Connaught Rangers heading for the boozer.
That was a pity even though we heaved a sigh of relief at the end of an almost orgiastic celebration of British imperialism (at least for another year). Interesting too that people are still scratching their heads as to why Fine Gael went ‘over-the-top’ with the commemorations.
Because despite all the wreath-laying, the honouring, the saluting and the toasting, not one reference was made to the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, one of the most important documents in modern Irish history. In the second paragraph it states: ‘…having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, it now seizes that moment, and, supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.’
‘Our gallant allies’
Now, ‘our gallant allies in Europe’ were none other than Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the very places Britain was trying to destroy and to where thousands of Irishmen were sent to die. Also ignored was Sir Roger Casement’s time in Germany, when he sought to recruit an Irish Brigade from among Irish prisoners of war who would be trained to fight against Britain in the cause of Irish independence.
The German connection was something that British and Irish governments (down to the 1940s) always did their best to smash. Nevertheless, the argument that England’s difficulties were Ireland’s opportunities remained a potent argument.
Whether it was a factor in the recent Remembrance hoop-la is debateable but one way or another there was a blurring of reasons as to why over 200,000 young men were gulled so easily into ‘taking the shilling’ and joining the British Army.
But then, there never was much examination as to why impressionable young men joined the British Army, even when being used as cannon fodder.
Instead, 35,000 poppies were spread on an altar in St Canice’s Cathedral – a gesture accompanied by the inevitable remarks from Catholic and Protestant clerics about ‘shared suffering,’ ‘building bridges’ and, needless to say, ‘hope for a better future.’
And, around the country, processions took place to ‘honour’ the Irishmen who died (pointlessly) for the Empire, the poppy became a respectable British Legion symbol and wreath after wreath was plastered on our national monuments. In Cobh, the bells rang out to commemorate the guns falling silent in 1918.
Indeed, we had to pinch ourselves to make sure that Ireland’s citizens had not been transported, Star Wars-style, to a typical English village green where the heroics of ‘our boys’ were being celebrated, such was the veneration shown to our jingoistic neighbours, and onetime masters, who led half the world into a bellicose catastrophe.
Last week a six-metre high, scrap-metal representation of an unknown soldier which had been erected in St Stephen’s Green was vandalised.
Fine Gael’s Culture Minister, Josepha Madigan launched the huge ‘art’ installation, declaring that the sculpture evoked ‘the fragility and suffering of those who survived World War One and returned home to an uncertain and difficult future.’
It was a gobstopper of a comment, particularly her use of the word ‘fragility’ to describe soldiers who were among the most rapacious and destructive the world had ever seen.
Even in today’s huggy-feely world, the word ‘fragile’ to describe WWI British and German soldiers sounds somewhat excessive. On the other hand, locating the statue in St Stephen’s Green was spot-on.
The Green was a strategic site during the 1916 Rising and was occupied by James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. Outnumbered and outgunned by the British, the ICA soldiers fought with tenacity to protect the newly-proclaimed Irish Republic.
British machine gunners and riflemen fired on the revolutionaries from the rooftops of buildings. They did their upmost to kill Constance Markievicz who was second-in-command as well as being a politician, a nationalist, a suffragette and a socialist, who personally had ‘taken-out’ a British Army sniper in the battle.
Condemned to death
She was condemned to death but her sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. Becoming the first female member of Britain’s Parliament (she didn’t take her seat because of the Sinn Féin boycott), she subsequently was a member of Dáil Éireann.
Interesting too that the sculpture helped Josepha Madigan to express her ‘delight’ at being able ‘to support creative endeavours that provide opportunities for people of all ages to consider the sensitive legacies of our past with understanding, empathy and a spirit of mutual respect and kindness.’ Which, sadly, to the plain people of Ireland, sounded uncannily similar to civil service gobbledegook!
A Fine Gael senator, Frank Feighan, is so buoyed up by the success of the recent commemoration events that he wants a permanent World War memorial to be erected in the centre of Dublin, preferably in front of Government Buildings! That particular controversy is set to run.
Tainted and sainted
London, of course, also has its controversial statues, such as the one on a corner of London’s Trafalgar Square. It is a monument to Nurse Edith Cavell who was famous for her charitable work in German-occupied Belgium at the beginning of the First World War. The Germans, however, accused her of being a spy and in 1915 shot her.
The British always claimed that Cavell was nothing more than a dedicated health worker whose sense of duty brought prestige to the nursing profession. Her execution, they said, was a sadistic and brutal murder.
Her name is inscribed in the Church of England’s Calendar of Saints although the story of her virtuous life and appalling death was massively exploited to encourage easily-duped young men to join the ranks.
Then, in 2015, on the centenary of Cavell’s death, Dame Stella Rimington, the former director-general of MI5, made a startling announcement. After inspecting military archives in Belgium, the spy catcher-in-chief discovered that the nurse indeed had been a secret agent and that passing military information to the British was the other part of her life.
She never had been just a simple nurse assisting wounded soldiers. The Germans were right!
Sad though …