“Each of these lives mattered, and their memories matter today,” a statement from the Irish Government setting the tone for the ceremonial event yesterday at Grangegorman Cemetery, Co. Dublin, which marked the deaths of British soldiers in the Easter Rising.
It is only recently, due to the discovery of my great-grand-uncle who fought and died for the British Army in the 1916 Rising, that this event or that statement would have any significance to me.
William Mulraney grew up in the same part of Kildare as I did, he played football for a local club as I do, and yet at the time I turned 18 I had spent the prior year studying the Irish rebels and the Rising for my Leaving Cert exam. When he turned 18, he set off to fight for the British Army.
Many people, I know, would immediately brand any Irish who fought for Britain in the Rising as traitors, and up until recently I probably would have agreed. While many would assume I’d be ashamed of this family history, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride when his name was called out at the State ceremony yesterday. I believe it is truly unfortunate that William found himself fighting a war on his own soil, against his fellow countrymen, dying in such a cruel fashion so close to home.
When I arrived at McKee Barracks on the outskirts of Dublin’s Phoenix Park for the ceremony, my expectations and feelings about the event were unsure. The security presence could be felt the closer you got to the Barracks and even more so at the cemetery, a reminder of the debate that has surrounded the inclusion of British soldiers in centenary commemoration this past year.
Once inside the reception, the atmosphere was far more relaxed and it was here where I began talking to the various military personnel who were attending the ceremony as well. These people were both young and old, British and Irish, and as they shared their stories, it was impossible not to be fascinated. To see these two nations come together for such an event was a genuinely joyful experience.
From McKee Barracks, we were transported by bus to Grangegorman cemetery, just a couple hundred meters down the road. The ceremony was just beginning when one protester, who had somehow managed to get past security, stood up from the crowd attempting to make a scene. Thanks to the quick thinking of the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers – who was hailed as a hero in Canada in October 2014 after he stopped a man who had shot dead a soldier on patrol at Parliament Hill in Ottawa – the protester was tackled and bundled away, allowing the ceremony to continue, undisrupted.
Canadian Ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers tackles protester at ceremony to honour British soldiers killed in 1916https://t.co/idQ3g16gG8— RTÉ News (@rtenews) May 26, 2016
Accounts of the Rising from Brigadier General Ernest Maconchy and 2nd Lieutenant Harry Douglas were read out, giving us a real insight into the ordeal that was the Rising, not only for the British soldiers but for civilians and rebels alike.
It was saddening to hear of the young men who died, some barely 17 years old, and to hear how the women of the neighboring houses came out to help drag the wounded inside away from the line of fire.
It was made clear throughout the ceremony that the loss of life is something that should never be dismissed, regardless of uniform or nationality, and if we want a true and just commemoration of the Easter Rising, all sides are important.
Those who died helped shape the history of our island, every person who died was a unique individual – a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend – and as a mark of respect it is important to remember them during this centenary year.
Some believe the acknowledgment of British soldiers is an insult to those who fought for a free Ireland. I believe they are wrong.
The ceremony was about commemorating those who had died. Why should the lives of the men who fought the Rebellion, the life of my relative, be any less significant than that of an Irish rebel? Many of them were good and honest men, simply looking for a career and secure wage to support their families.
It is said that 40% of the 125 British soldiers who died during the Rising were Irish. While some may be quick to brand these men as traitors, many seem to forget that the Rising was opposed by the majority of the Irish population at the time. Forgotten also is the fact that many of these men only joined the British Army to aid the Irish cause in the hope of the British Government implementing Home Rule. And many seem to forget that men like my great grand-uncle were simply trying to make a living with the scarcity of jobs at the time and did not believe they would ever be fighting on Irish soil against Irish men.
To say we can’t remember these men by laying a wreath by the graves is an insult to both the men and women of Ireland and Great Britain. Yesterday’s ceremony highlighted the mutual respect that has developed between our two nations, despite our troubled past. It signals the maturity of our understanding of the overlapping history which we share, our ability to reconcile together, and the efforts that have been made to bring about a long and lasting peace after a history blighted with violence.