In Athy, where 218 men from the town and the surrounding district died during the 1914/18 war, a few men came together on Remembrance Sunday 1985 to publically commemorate for the first time in over 50 years the local men who had died in the war. The ceremony was held in the local cemetery where six World War I soldiers who died at home were buried and I am proud to say that the Remembrance Sunday commemorations have been held every year since then, with ever growing numbers attending. So far as I have been able to ascertain this small initiative in the South Kildare town would be repeated elsewhere and led to a general acceptance that people from both political traditions who died in World War I should be honoured.
It is often claimed that commemorations in Northern Ireland were organised by and large on religious or political grounds for many years. For many Catholic families who had lost sons or fathers in the war, collective commemoration in public was not deemed appropriate, particularly in nationalist areas of Belfast. For many Catholics in the North the 1914/18 commemorations were viewed as Loyalist events and the war itself as a futile conflict to be forgotten. Indeed participation in the annual commemoration events was seen as a badge of loyalty. The divergence was noticeable from the first Armistice Day commemoration held on the 1st of November 1919 where in Belfast businesses stopped for two minutes silence at 11.00 a.m. At the same time there was no mass observation in Derry city. In Dublin a sizeable demonstration was held on that first anniversary, but it was accompanied by rowdy scenes, with clashes between Unionist and Nationalist supporters. The newspapers reported ‘hardly had the Trinity students concluded the singing of “God Save the King” when a crowd of young, mostly students from the National University, appeared in College Green shouting and singing the Soldiers Song. A scene of wild disorder followed.’
In 1966 the Taoiseach Sean Lemass, a one time critic of remembrance ceremonies in Ireland, acknowledged that Irish men who had enlisted in the British Army during World War I ‘were motivated by the highest purpose and died in their tens of thousands in Flanders and Gallipoli believing they were giving their lives in the cause of human liberty everywhere, not excluding Ireland.’
One of the first cross community approaches in Northern Ireland in retelling the 1914/18 story in a bipartisan way was seen in a 1993 publication by the West Belfast Farset Youth and Community Development Project which told of the Somme story as one involving both the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Division. It was after all the Battle of the Somme which brought Republicans and Loyalists together as one and where both traditions suffered huge losses fighting in a common cause. Despite this the Somme had always been seen by Loyalists as a 36th Ulster Division conflict which was highlighted on many Orange Lodge banners as central to loyalism. The 1993 project recognised Republican involvement and losses on the Somme for what was the first time in the North’s modern history.
The IRA ceasefire in 1994 prompted the SDLP in Belfast to attend as a body for the first time Remembrance Sunday commemorations in that city. That same year the SDLP took part in commemoration ceremonies in Armagh, Omagh and Enniskillen. The SDLP Mayor of Derry, John Kerr, was the first Mayor to lay a wreath during the 1995 ceremonies in Derry and two years later Belfast’s first nationalist Mayor, Alban Maginness, participated in the city’s remembrance ceremonies. He was accompanied by the Lord Mayor of Dublin when laying a poppy wreath during the Somme commemorations on the 1st of July.
The first cross border approach to joint commemoration resulted in the opening of the island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in 1998 by the English, Irish and Belgium Heads of State. This was an initiative by Glen Barr and Paddy Harte, then a Fine Gael T.D. The Park with the round tower commemorates Loyalist and Republican involvement at Messines in June 1917 when they fought side by side as part of the 10th, 16th and 36th Divisions.
Perhaps one of the most far reaching participations in Remembrance Sunday events in recent years was that of Belfast’s first Sinn Fein Mayor Alex Maskey in 2002. His participation and that of all the other participants I have mentioned was a recognition long overdue that people from both traditions had shared the losses and sacrifices which marked the 1914/18 war.
Nevertheless First World War commemoration will remain a potentially controversial subject for some time to come given its roots and the complexities of what is a contested past.