“Lest we forget” is the inscription on the new controversial poppy pin being sold by the Limerick branch of the Royal British Legion, but for most of the past century the motto in Ireland has been “Lest we remember.”
One hundred years ago this weekend, the idea of an armistice was still in the unknowable future. The First World War was still only known as “the war” and it had already claimed millions of lives, including tens of thousands of Irishmen. Tens of thousands (latest research says approximately 50,000) – out of a population of 4.4 million. A devastating total, one that surely nobody could forget. Yet, … for most Irish people that's exactly what happened.
They forgot – deliberately.
I remember when I first heard that my wife's great-grandfather died in WWI I thought that was strange, that somehow he was an oddball. I had no idea of the scale of death endured by Irish people, by Irish nationalists. I knew, as did anyone else in Ireland, that unionists, those who favored the link with Britain, did a lot of fighting and dying in WWI, but I had no idea just how many Irish nationalists (Catholics, whatever broad grouping you want to use) died too.
I can remember that moment when the truth slapped me across the face. I was standing looking at one of the walls on the massive Menin Gate memorial in Ieper, Belgium and I realized that most of the names I was looking at were of Irishmen. And this was a monument with 54,000 names of those who had been killed and whose bodies were never identified. There were two other similar monuments in the area and thousands and thousands of graves from UK forces. I walked around many cemeteries and I realized there were Irishmen in all of those. Irish nationalists.
'How could this be?' I asked myself. It barely registered in the textbooks that Irishmen fought in the British Army (and in the Canadian, Australian & New Zealand units too). It barely registered that tens of thousands of Irish families suffered a loss.
Every Irish family seemingly had a relative who was “out in 1916” for the Easter Rising, but the truth is far more had a family member in France fighting with the British than among the Irish rebels fighting against them. This would have been obvious to all at the time, but somehow the passage of time obliterated those who fought and died in France and magnified and multiplied the numbers who took part in the Rising.
For all sorts of reasons, perfectly understandable reasons, the new Irish state that was born out of the 1916-23 period of rebellion and civil war buried the memory of these buried soldiers. At first the pain and loss of the wives, parents, children and siblings of the dead soldiers was openly and publicly acknowledged, but then memory became less public and more personal until even that faded. By the time I got to Ireland WWI was something that 'they did,' not something that 'we did.' So tens of thousands of dead Irishmen were gradually ignored, forgotten, erased.
The politics of why they were forgotten is easy to figure out: the new Irish state was born out of a bloody battle with the British. Service in the British Army, even if before the rebellion, was seen as dishonorable, and the dead were seen as forgettable. Yet for many of the 250,000 or more who joined up to fight after Germany invaded Belgium in the summer of 1914 they were following their nationalist leaders. They thought they were going off to prove that an independent Ireland would be a reliable neighbor to Britain. They thought they were going off to defend a small nation from a brutish invader. They thought they were fighting for Ireland.
Even if you argue that those nationalist leaders were discredited, does that mean that the average foot soldier had to bear that blame? Forever?
Well, apparently not forever because in the last few years there has been an awakening in Ireland to the extent of the involvement of Irish nationalists in the war and the scale of death they suffered. That's why Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wore the controversial poppy pin the other day – because he wanted to join with those who now want to reclaim those memories.
That's all that's really happening in Ireland. It isn't part of any attempt to rejoin the UK or the British Commonwealth nor is it part of the poppy fanaticism all too common in Britain.
Many Irish nationalists today simply want to acknowledge that those who fought and died were doing so in Ireland's name, even if nothing worked out as they thought it would. They left Ireland hoping to be “back by Christmas” having done Ireland proud, but the war went on and on. They died in their thousands and by the time the 'war to end all wars' finally ended they were on the wrong side of history.