- 1 This paper draws on original research funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and (...)
1‘Morally ambiguous chapters of a country’s history cannot be faced easily… silence then is the insurance policy people take to protect the given order, even at the cost of the truth’ (Winter 2010, 11). In his article ‘Thinking about silence’ Jay Winter presents silence as something deliberate, ‘purposeful silence… a socially constructed space in which and about which subjects and words normally used in everyday life are not spoken’ (Winter 2010, 4). In this sense ‘silence’ is akin to the activity of forgetting. If silence and forgetting can be purposeful, this article examines how choosing to remember, to break a social silence, can also be deliberate. Rather than the spontaneous overflowing of a repressed memory, states and societies can consciously employ remembering for strategic reasons. Two case studies from modern Irish history illustrate this argument but from opposite angles. One considers a successful and popular act of recollection which brought substantial political benefits, the other deals with an equally successful and popular act of historical forgetting which persists because no current benefit outweighs the discomfort of remembering, the pain of breaking the silence. This article considers the very different fates of two modern wars in Irish history and Irish historical consciousness: The Boer War, more correctly called the South African War (1899-1902) and the Great War (1914-1918). Important differences arise in the commemoration of these campaigns, both in their physical memorials and in the public and academic memory. This raises valuable questions about the role of the state in public history, especially as Ireland heads into a decade of commemoration from 2012 – 2022.
2Ireland has a long tradition of military service in a wide range of armies including those of Spain, France, Austria and both sides in the American Civil War. As part of the United Kingdom until 1922 it was natural that many thousands of Irishmen should serve in British regiments. The typical peacetime recruits were young unemployed males from the cities and towns. For generations, thousands of Irish men and their families were intimately involved in the army. There were many British regiments associated with Ireland, or with particular regions of the country: the Irish Guards, Royal Irish Rifles, Munster Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, and importantly for this article — the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (‘the Dubs’). It was official policy not to station Irish troops in Ireland so the Dublin Fusiliers served mainly in India; by the late 19th century the worry that Irish troops might not be reliable in the event of another rebellion in their homeland had eased.
- 2 For a fuller treatment of the history of the Islandbridge War memorial see Fergus A. Darcy, Rememb (...)
- 3 The very late completion date, and the changed symbolic and political meaning of the memorial in t (...)
3Around 200,000 Irish men volunteered to fight in the Great War. Divisions from the Catholic, nationalist south and the Protestant, unionist north fought side by side in Belgium and France. The Dubs also served with distinction in Turkey. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 35,000 Irishmen died in the course of the campaign (Orr 63, 76). The huge crowds attending the Victory Day celebrations in 1919 demonstrate how significant the war was in the lives of Dubliners. However, in this same month Irish republicans were fighting a guerrilla war to drive the British out of the country. ‘The Foggy Dew’, a popular rebel song expressed the negative attitude towards Irishmen in British uniform. Referring to the Dublin Fusiliers’ battles in Turkey and the Middle East, the lyrics ran: It was better to die ‘neath an Irish sky/ Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar. In other words, the Irishmen in British uniform would have done better by staying at home to fight against the British instead of wasting their sacrifice on a distant shore. Such views made commemoration of the Irish dead of the Great War very complicated. While towns and cities across Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand built local monuments listing their dead, the south of Ireland saw barely a handful of war memorials. Some private monuments were erected inside Protestant churches, and within the grounds of Trinity College, but the campaign to build a major national memorial was still going on when the new Irish state was formed in 1922. When a park near the parliament house was suggested as a site the new Irish Free State would not allow it, illustrating Jay Winter’s argument that ‘the closer to the centres of power in the state are such acts of commemoration, the more likely is it that ulterior political motives will lead to a highjacking of the event’ (Winter 2010, 28). To commemorate the Great War so close to the seat of government would create a mistaken impression about the foundations of independent Ireland. Discussions continued for years. Despite the non-involvement of the state, and antipathy from some sections of society, attendance at the November 11th Armistice Day ceremonies in Ireland remained high from 1919 until the 1930s (Jeffery 2010, 270). In the absence of a permanent cenotaph or similar venue, early Remembrance Day gatherings took place in College Green, a city-centre square traditionally used for large gatherings, before moving to a much larger space in the Phoenix Park a mile from the heart of town. Eventually, in 1930, the government and the ex-servicemen’s organisation agreed on a site at Islandbridge outside the city.2 The ex-servicemen constructed extensive Memorial Gardens on a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Work was completed by 1939 but because of the impending World War and the government’s policy of neutrality, Éamon De Valera, President of the Executive Council and former garrison commander in the 1916 Rising, was unwilling to officially open a site which commemorated only one side in the previous conflict.3
4With the strict enforcement of neutrality a more active type of official amnesia took hold during the Second World War, which continued into the later 20th century. As the Northern Ireland Troubles began in the late 1960s public Armistice Day ceremonies were abandoned and the Islandbridge Memorial Gardens went into decline. Commemoration took place at indoor Services of Remembrance in Protestant cathedrals and churches and by the early 1980s the Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge were derelict. Stray horses grazed on the weeds and long grass, vandals destroyed the flower beds and covered the stonework in graffiti. The involvement of so many thousands of Irishmen from the south in the Great War was forgotten. School history books concentrated on the actions of republican revolutionaries fighting against the British, giving little coverage to the enormous number of Irishmen who had fought and died in British uniform.
5The recovery of the memory of the Great War began in the late 1980s when a small number of media personalities began to talk about fathers and uncles who had served or died in the British Army. This opened the door for others to rediscover their own family connections with 1914-1918. Historicalsocieties like the Dublin Fusiliers’ Association began to call for a more mature acceptance of Ireland’s varied military heritage. In 1994 the Abbey Theatre, a key site of Irish cultural nationalism, staged Frank McGuinness’ play ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme’ to great acclaim. The rediscovery of the Irish war poet Francis Ledwidge further added to the literary and cultural drive to remember the war. A committee emerged, supported by the Royal British Legion, to restore the overgrown Memorial Gardens. After a delay of fifty years they were finally opened in 1988, but no government official attended.
The restored War Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge, Dublin.
Image ©National Monuments Service: Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
- 4 This useful phrase is borrowed from Keene, Judith ‘Enshrining grievance, remembering veterans: The (...)
6Slowly nevertheless the Irish state became involved. After sixty years of praising the Rebel dead and denouncing the British army, however, suddenly admitting the level of Irish involvement in that same army required some delicate rhetoric. Irish soldiers of the Great War were praised for their individual bravery, their dedication and willingness to fight for their beliefs and the sacrifice they made – even if it was in British uniform. It was a case of ‘honouring the warrior and forgetting the war’.4 In 1993 President Mary Robinson became the first Irish head of state to attend the Remembrance Day service in St Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral in the centre of Dublin. This allowed for improved relations with Northern Ireland. The Battle of the Somme served the foundation myth for the northern state, just as Easter 1916 did for the south. Ireland as a whole shared in honouring the sacrifice of men from Ulster and the other provinces in the Great War when Albert II, King of the Belgians, Irish President Mary McAleese and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II jointly opened the Island of Ireland Peace Park, at Messines in 1998. The sensitive choice of name for this memorial, avoiding specific associations with Northern Ireland or the Republic, allowed Irish people from both parts of the island to identify with it. By recreating an Irish monastic round tower from the Medieval period the designers deftly stepped over the divisions of the Reformation to an earlier shared Christian heritage. The purpose behind this particular rhetoric of remembering is inscribed on a stone at Messines. A Peace Pledge describes the terrible slaughter of Irishmen from north and south, it states:
As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance… we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.
Clearly the memory of the Great War was serving a much more modern agenda. The symbolism involved in attending such ceremonies was very useful in the negotiations to resolve the Northern Irish Troubles. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended the fighting – but normal relations still did not exist between Britain and Ireland. It was significant that the Queen, as British head of state, had never made an official visit to Ireland; culturally, linguistically and historically Britain’s closest neighbour.
7In May 2011, after many years of careful choreography, a successful state visit brought Queen Elizabeth to a number of key locations in Irish historical and cultural life. Among the carefully chosen sites was the Islandbridge War Memorial Gardens. This retrieval of the Great War from official and public forgetting has a clear logic. Due to important political sensitivities surrounding the Irish fight for freedom a high profile public memory had been deliberately forgotten. The political situation had changed over time and the memory was allowed to re-emerge as a vehicle for reconciliation with the unionists of Northern Ireland and for the normalisation of relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Ireland’s involvement in the Great War was formally and fully restored to public consciousness.
- 5 For example The Sphere, a weekly magazine of photo-journalism and social news, launched in 1900 wi (...)
8The successful and beneficial recollection of Irish military exploits in British uniform, however, does not apply to all of Britain’s wars. The Second South African War (1899-1902) ended barely a decade before the First World War but Ireland’s part in this imperial campaign does not sit comfortably in the Irish historical memory, nor does it serve any contemporary purpose to recall it. A complicated set of events surrounding political control and natural resources, in this case gold, sparked a war between the tiny Boer Republics and the vast British Empire. The conflict proved surprisingly difficult. Around 250,000 troops from Britain and Ireland, southern Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, had great difficulty in suppressing 80,000 Boer farmer-soldiers. Coming as it did at the high point of British imperialism, the South African War produced some very strong emotions. It was of central importance in the British public mind that this distant campaign be won; faith in the invincibility of the empire depended on it. At this time however, some in Britain were starting to question the wisdom and morality of the whole imperial system. In addition, modern communications meant that press reports of every battle, photographs of wounded troops and captured Boers filled the daily papers in London and Dublin.5 For Britain, the Second South African War was the longest, the most expensive and the bloodiest conflict between 1815 and 1914. It lasted three months longer, and resulted in higher British casualties, than the Crimean War (1853–56) (Pakenham xv).
9The South African War had an important impact in Ireland too. Growing opposition to the Anglicisation of Ireland meant that, by 1899, Irish nationalist opinion was firmly anti-imperialist. When the war broke out people admired the plucky little Boer republics who had taken on the might of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The Boer’s armed struggle for independence was contrasted with Ireland’s long and fruitless appeal in parliament for limited self-government. Activists protested against British attacks on the Boers, and called on Irishmen not to fight in the war. A small number of ardent nationalists even travelled out to fight alongside the Boers against the British army. Far greater numbers of Irishmen were already in full-time army service, however, they went where their duty sent them. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers were actively involved in many key battles and public interest in their welfare and success was naturally very strong in their hometown. Hundreds of families waited anxiously for news of their fathers, sons or brothers fighting far away on the Veldt. The intensity of the press coverage fuelled their worries and made the war a daily talking point in the city. The Dublin Fusiliers performed very well and received great praise. In 1900, while the war was still being fought, Queen Victoria announced that she would travel to Dublin to officially thank the city for the Fusiliers’ efforts. This was her first appearance in Ireland in over thirty years. The royal visit was a great success, with both the public and the queen enjoying a surge of affection for one another. It also produced a useful supply of new recruits – which some claimed had been the intention all along. Following the British victory in May 1902 great celebrations broke out across the UK. In London, Edinburgh and Belfast crowds celebrated in the streets, bonfires were lit and church bells rung. Dublin celebrated too, at last her boys could come home. The Dublin Fusiliers demonstrated such bravery in the war that Queen Victoria granted permission for shamrock, the symbol of Ireland, to be worn in the headdress of Irish units on St Patrick’s Day. Previously, Irish troops had been forbidden from wearing the nationalist emblem on their uniforms.
- 6 1,809 names are listed in the ‘Index to Deaths pertaining to the South African War (1899-1902) whi (...)
10Over 1,800 Irish men died in the South African campaign (General Registrar of Ireland, 1902), resulting in a number of private memorials in Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College, both Protestant institutions.6However the importance of the Dublin Fusiliers’ actions in the war required a public monument. Donations were raised for a suitable memorial to the men of this local regiment and in 1907 the Duke of Connaught opened a ceremonial archway and gate into St Stephen’s Green, in the heart of the city. The Earl of Meath, chairman of the fundraising committee, described the purpose of the memorial: ‘Situated in the centre of the Irish capital this memorial, recording the gallant deeds of brave men, will be an ever present reminder to coming generations of the citizens of Dublin of the obligations of loyalty, of faithfulness, to duty and honour which Ireland demands of all her sons’ (Kildare Observer, 24 Oct 1907). This confidence in the future was misplaced as the average Dubliner passing beneath the arch today would struggle to name the events which it commemorates.
Fusiliers Arch, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin
The Victoria Monument, Leinster House
- 7 The Royal Dublin Society was founded in 1731 to promote the arts, agriculture, industry and scienc (...)
11Another significant memorial linked the Dublin Fusiliers with the very heart of empire — Victoria, Queen and Empress. Even more than the Fusiliers’ Arch, its fate tells us much about the conscious activities of remembering and forgetting. In 1900, shortly after her visit to Ireland, Queen Victoria died. A memorial was erected in a semi-public area in front of Leinster House, the Royal Dublin Society’s premises in the city centre.7 This large sculptural group was unveiled in February 1908, just seven months after the Fusiliers’ Arch. Inspired by French public sculpture of the belle-époque period, it showed a matronly Victoria seated on a tall plinth, three groups of bronze figures sat around the base representing Peace, Victory and Erin, the female personification of Ireland, holding a laurel wreath over a fallen Dublin Fusilier. Thus Ireland, Dublin, army and empire were brought together in an impressive artwork.
The Queen Victoria Memorial, with Erin and the fallen Dublin Fusilier at the base. Leinster House is visible to the right
Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
12The iconography of both the Victoria memorial and the Fusiliers’ Arch is interesting. Dublin was alone in the United Kingdom in erecting a memorial arch to those who fell in South Africa – the Anglo-Boer War Memorial at the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg is the only other site which also has an arch. The absence of a winged figure of Victory, or of a pith-helmeted soldier standing to attention, striding towards the enemy or guarding a wounded comrade, also marks the Dublin Fusiliers’ memorial out from most other cities’ Boer War monuments. Inside the arch the names of the fallen are listed and the battlefields are inscribed beneath the string-course running around the outside; a bronze regimental emblem is the only additional decoration. The Boer War element on the Victoria memorial was an Irish interpretation of motifs seen across Britain, projecting a subtly different message to the occasionally jingoistic style. A mournful seated figure of Erin replaced the winged and animated Victory seen on monuments in Gateshead, Newcastle, Norwich and The Mall in London. While statues in Belfast, Bristol, Cheltenham, Edinburgh and many other towns show an infantryman in a range of postures, Dublin was apparently unique in depicting a dead soldier. Unlike many memorials, neither of Dublin’s examples describes the fallen as having ‘died for their country’, nor is there a sense of indebtedness for freedoms preserved (Winter 1995, 95). The locations and unveiling ceremonies for both structures support Winter’s argument that ‘commemoration was an act of citizenship’, but in an unusual way (Winter 1995, 80). While both were funded by subscription, construction was not initiated by the elected city council. Dublin’s councillors were increasingly nationalist as the new century progressed and they did not promote such examples of British identity. The chief official at each unveiling was a senior member of the nobility and their speeches, obviously, expressed firm loyalty to the crown and constitution. These facts did not anchor the new constructions in the affections of the general populace. More significantly, both memorials were built in full public view but on private ground. St. Stephen’s Green, site of the Fusiliers’ Arch, was controlled by the Unionist Lord Ardilaun of the Guinness dynasty and the space in front of Leinster House was owned by the Royal Dublin Society, an institution known for its links to the British establishment in Ireland. Where citizenship, nation and state are contested terms, the language of such memorials has very sophisticated grammatical rules.
13The Irish revolution began in 1916, in the middle of the Great War, and concluded in 1922 with a treaty establishing the Irish Free State (the 26 counties of the south and west), and Northern Ireland, the six north easterly counties which remained under British rule. The government of the new southern state took over Leinster House as a parliament building, leaving the rebels-turned-politicians who governed nationalist Ireland with a large statue of Queen Victoria and her Dublin Fusilier on their front lawn. Passing their former queen and empress on a daily basis, they went about their work of loosening or breaking the remaining cultural ties with England. If the new state was unhappy with a memorial to the Great War across the road from the parliament, having a statue of an Irish soldier killed in an unpopular imperial war on their front doorstep was intolerable. Its ‘proximity to the centre of power’ sealed its fate and eventually the whole monument, queen, soldiers and cherubim, was finally dismantled in 1947 and put in ‘cold storage’ in the abandoned Royal Military Hospital at Kilmainham, outside the city centre. Nobody questioned the official reason given for its removal, to create additional car-parking for members of the Dáil, or Irish parliament (Ó Riain 84). Kilmainham hospital had been built as an Irish version of Les Invalides in Paris, or the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, so it was a fitting place for a wounded old soldier and his dead sovereign to end up. Eventually the statue of Victoria was presented as a gift to the people of New South Wales, where it now stands in front of the elegant QVB shopping centre in Sydney. The monument’s other bronze figures remained in storage. In the 1990s the former military hospital’s architectural beauty was recognised and it was opened as the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Technically the bronze fusilier could have qualified as ‘Modern Art’ but he was moved out to a location in Dublin Castle. For 700 years the Castle had been the centre of British rule in Ireland; following independence it became the ceremonial stage for much state pageantry.
14This might seem like a fitting end, another example of ‘honouring the warrior and forgetting the war’. Separated from his queen, this relic of an imperial past is still a local boy. He lies in the heart of the new republic as a reminder of the sacrifice and bravery of one of their own. But this is not the case – the location of this statue is something of an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’. It is true that the bronze Dublin Fusilier lies in Dublin Castle, but he is not very effective as a public memorial. To see the fusilier, and to engage with the historical memory of the Boer War, visitors must pass through a closed gate, cross a private car-park and climb a steep flight of steps to a secluded garden where Erin and her fallen hero sit on an air-conditioning vent in a rather forlorn flower bed. No sign points to its location and there is no plaque to explain who the statue depicts or what it commemorates.
Statue of fallen Dublin Fusilier and Erin with her harp and laurel wreath, in an inaccessible corner of Dublin Castle
15Irishmen were deeply involved in both the South African and Great Wars. Both conflicts had a major impact on the country, the South African War being especially important in Dublin. The turmoil caused by the Irish revolution produced a profound change in public and political attitudes and memories of the older generation, and the schooling of the young, turned away from these uncomfortable wars which had been fought in British uniform. Songs, stories and schoolbooks recalled instead the details of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the bloody resistance to the British. The memorials to the South African War and the Great War were officially forgotten.
16Once the campaign began to retrieve the Great War from the attic of the public memory, the state realised that an injustice had been done. Tens of thousands of brave Irishmen had volunteered for a cause they sincerely believed in, but through no fault of theirs the country they returned to was completely transformed. Crucially, it was also realised that the memory of the Great War was of enormous significance to Unionists in Northern Ireland. Here was a shared history, a subject on which both sides in the Northern Irish troubles could agree. Remembering the Great War, or more importantly deciding to remember the Great War, allowed the Irish government to honour the dead from north and south. Southern politicians could invite northern Unionists to attend ceremonies in Dublin and they could share a platform with the neighbouring head of state. This newly recovered memory also allowed Ireland to share in the wider European heritage surrounding the Great War. Instead of turning inward to remember a local revolution, modern Ireland could turn outwards and share in the commemorations of her EU partners. Furthermore, if French Presidents and German Chancellors, whose countrymen had fought on opposite sides in two global wars, could attend memorials in one another’s capitals, surely Irish men from north and south could join in commemoration together, especially as they had fought on the same side. Beyond Europe, new connections with Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders could emerge. Official involvement in their commemoration events, and in ceremonies at Gallipoli in Turkey, created fresh communications channels to many countries. This was not a cynical diplomatic exercise. Many Irish families, including those of politicians, could trace relations in the Great War. The decision to remember just happened to bring all these benefits with very little political or emotional cost.
17But the Boer War has not been taken down from the attic of public forgetting because there is no political, diplomatic or social reason to do so. It is so far back in time that there is no personal reason either. More importantly, there is a heavy cost involved in remembering Irish involvement in the South African War. It has long been a part of the diplomatic image projected by independent Ireland, especially in the developing world, that the Irish were never invaders or colonisers. Ireland presents itself, quite successfully, in the post-colonial world as a victim of colonisation. It is that rare thing – a developed western country which can empathise with the experience of many Africa, Asian and South American states. The rhetoric of remembering, praising the bravery of the ordinary Dublin Fusilier while disagreeing with the war aims, would not work in this context. It does not fit Ireland’s official self-image, or the sense of identity of the average Irish citizen, to recall the significant contribution made by Irish administrators, civil servants, police and soldiers to creating colonies and maintaining the Empire. Commemorating Dublin soldiers who subdued a small independence movement on the fringes of the British Empire is distinctly awkward. The Irish record of humanitarian activity is far more comfortable, seeing Roger Casement’s courage and dedication in the Belgian Congo and the Amazon as a precursor to the work of Bob Geldof and Bono.
18In his essay ‘Thinking about silence’ the WW1 historian Jay Winter wrote: ‘Commemoration is the collective representation of a shared view of a past worth recalling’ (Winter 3). The key word here is ‘worth’. For Ireland, the benefits of remembering the Great War far outweigh the costs. Sixty years of nationalist historiography could be overturned as sensitive rhetoric was employed to reawaken public interest in the events of 1914-1918. Anti-war critics were silenced by the sincere beliefs and selfless sacrifice of the Irishmen who bravely volunteered to fight. This was not glorifying war; it was remembering the courage of ordinary men in a terrible conflict. Anti-British critics were reminded of the many leading rebels who had served in the British army, and the fact that Irish soldiers had believed that their service would make Irish Home Rule a reality. The older generation, long silent, were now permitted to recall family stories without fear of being branded as pro-British. Peace in Northern Ireland, and normal relations with Britain, are extraordinarily valuable rewards – the memory of the Great War is definitely ‘worth recalling’. But the cost of remembering the Dublin Fusiliers’ efforts in South Africa is greater than the benefits. Officially at least, the Boer War is simply not worth remembering.