In Athy where 223 men from the town and the surrounding district died during the 1914/18 war, I joined a few friends on Remembrance Sunday 1986 to publicly commemorate for the first time in over 50 years the local men who had died in that war. The ceremony was held in St. Michael’s 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.
It is often claimed that commemorations in the North of Ireland were organised for many years on religious or political grounds. 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 commemoration were viewed as loyalist events and the war itself as a futile conflict to be ignored. Participation in the annual commemoration events was seen as a badge of loyalty. The divergence of opinion was noticeable from the first Armistice Day commemoration held on the 1st of November 1919 when 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 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 men, 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 re-telling the 1914/18 war story in a bipartisan way was the 1993 publication by the West Belfast 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 Republican 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 Irish 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, 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 previous mentioned was a long overdue recognition that people from both traditions shared the losses and sacrifices which marked the 1914/18 war.
The renewal of interest in commemorating the dead of World War 1 has seen the establishment of a Western Front Association in 1980 and the setting up of branches of the Dublin Fusiliers Association in Dublin and Belfast. The Somme Association set up in 1990 provides a platform for the communities in Northern Ireland to share a common heritage – a heritage of loss and sacrifice endured by the men from Northern Ireland of the 16th and 36th Divisions.
Nevertheless, First World War commemorations will remain for many a controversial subject for some time to come given its roots and the complexities of what is a contested past.