Men and women from both parts of the island of Ireland played prominent parts in World War I. Their response to the call for volunteers was a cross community response. However, when it came to commemorate and remember the awful events of those troubled years the community’s response in the South and in the North of this island were radically different.
Here in the South World War I commemorations during the 1920s and early 1930s were largely confined to participants who had returned from the war. Armistices Day parades were somewhat muted affairs in the South and in Athy these parades were not actively supported by the local population. However, it was accepted that the men who had gone overseas should be allowed to commemorate their colleagues who fell in battle. It was an ambivalent attitude by the local population whose church and civic leaders during the war years had actively encouraged local men to enlist. Many did enlist – Athy earning for itself the oft repeated claim of having given proportionately more men to the war than any other town in Ireland. ‘Do as Athy has done’, urged the recruitment officers as they sought to swell the ranks during the final years of the war.
Despite this, World War I commemoration in Athy and generally throughout Southern Ireland was always problematic. 19th July 1919 was designated ‘Peace Day’ in Britain and plans were made to mark the day in Dublin. A large parade was organised to start from Dublin Castle and included a large number of demobilised soldiers and sailors organised by regiment and led by their former officers. The Dublin newspapers reported however that upwards of 3,000 Irish Nationalist Veterans boycotted the event and also reported that ‘some cheers were raised as demobilised soldiers passed, but the regular troops were received by the most part in silence.’ Later that evening scuffles broke out in the city between Sinn Fein supporters and some of the participating soldiers, a clear indication that war commemoration in the capital city challenged cultural and political allegiances.
The subsequent Armistice commemorations in Dublin also led to disorder as it did in the following years. On 11th November 1923 and 1924 a temporary cenotaph was erected in College Green outside Trinity College and a large crowd attended to mark the anniversary. Fighting between Nationalists and ex-service men prompted the Garda Commissioner to refuse permission for College Green to be used again. In 1925 the commemoration moved to St. Stephen’s Green and a year later to the Phoenix Park where it was held for the next decade. Following the election of a Fianna Fáil government in 1932 and the start of the economic war it became less easy to continue the Remembrance Sunday commemorations and the annual ceremonies ceased in and around the mid-1930s.
In July 1919 it was agreed to erect in Dublin a Great War Memorial home to be used by ex-servicemen. This did not meet with official approval and the plan was dropped but in the meantime it was agreed to have some form of a war memorial erected. Funds were contributed by the public and approximately £42,000 was collected. £5,000 of those funds was used to publish ‘Ireland’s Memorial Records’ of which 100 copies of the eight volume set were printed and distributed to all the principal libraries in Ireland. A further £1,500 was spent on replacing wooden crosses with stone crosses on battlefields where the Irish Divisions had fought.
In 1924 a committee was formed to consider proposals for a permanent memorial in Dublin to Irish men and women killed in the First World War. The committee suggested Merrion Square and later St. Stephen’s Green as suitable memorial sites. Public opposition to these proposals prompted the Irish government lead by W.T. Cosgrove to set up its own war memorial committee.
Eventually the war memorial committee completed its work and a site at Islandbridge across the River Liffey opposite the Phoenix Park obelisk about 3 kilometres from O’Connell Street on grounds not too far distant from Kilmainham Jail was chosen. Work on the Islandbridge Memorial started in 1932 but it was not until 1938 that it was completed. The Islandbridge memorial park designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens is one of four gardens in Ireland designed by this world famous architect and is not only a place of remembrance but also of great architectural interest and beauty. An official opening planned for July 1939 was postponed indefinitely due to the threat of war.
From 1940 to 1970 the British Legion held annual Armistice Day ceremonies at Islandbridge. Because of the troubles in the North the Park memorial was closed between 1971 and 1988. It only reopened in 1988 in response to criticism of the Irish government’s attitude to World War I remembrance in the face of the Enniskillen bombings of the previous year.
Another six years were to pass before the Islandbridge memorial park was formally opened in 1994 and for the first time an Irish government minister attended with the then Minister for Finance, Bertie Aherne, representing the Irish government.
……………….TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK…………..