Veterans Day or Remembrance Day used to bring Ireland to a standstill but whilst it still pulls a crowd in Northern Ireland, down south it is now largely forgotten and ignored, marked only by a small minority.
This year, 2021, marks the 103rd anniversary of Armistice Day, the day on with the armistice was signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of the First World War.
The first Veterans Day, usually called Armistice or Remembrance Day in Ireland, was marked in 1919 a year to the day after the guns fell silent across the Western Front.
Some 210,000 people living in Ireland signed up to fight in the Great War of whom at least 35,000 died. The overall figure for the number of Irish dead, however, is thought to be closer to 50,000 as an unknowable number of Irish people living in the United States, Britain, and the Empire signed up to serve in the militaries of those countries too.
Recruitment had been particularly strong amongst Ireland’s Protestant community, many of whom were keen to prove their loyalty and worth to Britain as the debate over Home Rule raged in London. Equally, however, a large number of Catholic nationalists signed up; some were eager to help protect Ireland from invasion, whilst others hoped to help liberate small Catholic Belgium from German tyranny. Others just wanted an adventure.
Few, if any, communities in Ireland escaped bereavement during the ensuing four years and the first anniversary of the conflict’s end saw a widespread desire to remember those who had passed in a dignified way.
As 11 o’clock approached on November 11 people across the island began to gather in town and city centers. In Dublin, thousands had gathered on College Green and the establishment Irish Times recorded that “a calm and stillness pervaded the entire city”.
Cars pulled over, flags flew at half mast, Dublin’s trams abruptly stopped as electricity to the whole city was flicked off and as Trinity College’s great clock struck 11 there was “an immediate hush”.
“Nothing was more striking than to see the male portion of the immense gathering doff their hats and bow their heads during the two minutes of solemn silence.”
A spontaneous rendition of God Save The King then rang out across Dublin with what was described as “much fervor”. Nearly a year into the War of Independence was this the last gasp of the British Empire in Ireland? A defiant expression of belief in the Act of Union or just an unrepresentative gathering of Dublin unionists?
Whereas the commemorations of 1919 had passed without incident, tensions had risen by 1920 as the War of Independence had escalated: a parade of shipyard workers had stones thrown at them on Belfast’s Henry Street with two young girls hospitalized as a result. In Galway threatening notes appeared on shop doors demanded they shut “in memory of the gallant lads”.
Observance however varied across the island: government institutions and unionist communities treated the day with reverence but in nationalist circles recognition of the day was patchy: in Carrick-on-Shannon, in Co Leitrim, the bells of both Catholic and Protestant Churches pealed out in remembrance, whilst in Athlone, Co Roscommon all shops in the town center shuttered for the day.
In Cork meanwhile, most of the public ignored the anniversary, although it was noted a Sinn Féin prisoner detained for court-martial happily leaped to his feet for the two minutes silence at Victoria Barracks.
As the twenties went on the format of the day changed little: even though most of the island was no longer part of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack and the other markers of British identity were still to be found at many Armistice Day ceremonies as if partition had never taken place.
Poppies too were a now common presence on the lapels of men and women in November: the red flower was the first things to grow from the churned up mud of the battlefield and soon became an iconic symbol of remembrance across the British Empire.
The Legion of Irish Ex-Servicemen sold only 5,000 of the plastic flowers in 1922 but within a few years, the number had mushroomed to 500,000.
Parades of veterans were now an annual fixture; in Cork, thousands attended each year and in Dublin, it was ten of thousands with huge numbers of young boys in the crowds wearing the medals of fallen fathers and brothers.
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But as the years slipped by republicans increasingly found the day hard to bear: in 1926 the Anti-Imperialist newspaper was founded and its first edition dealt with the issue of Armistice Day head-on.
“When it was first announced that November 11th was set apart as the day on which those who had lost their relatives in the Great War should honor their memory, many generous Irish people… held that bereaved relatives of British soldiers should be allowed to hold their commemoration services without interference,” the paper wrote.
But the reality of the day was not the mere remembrance of the dead, the paper argued, “the purpose of Armistice Day celebrations in Ireland was to hold a pro-British rally in every town in Ireland.”
The singing of God Save The King and the waving of Union Jacks at such ceremonies was it concluded, “the expression of the passions of the mob.”
Certainly many within southern Ireland’s unionist minority saw the anniversary as the one day when they could publicly fly the flag they were born under and sing the anthem of Empire without apology.
With Ireland still divided over the symbols of Irishness and Britishness in society, “poppy snatching” became a common sport in November and female poppy sellers took to hiding razor blades inside the paper flowers as a deterrence.
Counter-demonstrations by anti-imperialists were common; in Dublin poppy wearers were sometimes attacked by men wearing Easter Lilies - in memory of the republican dead of 1916 - prompting the safety conscious to stop buying the flowers and stay away from ceremonies; heckles of “Up the Republic” wafted over the streets of Dublin and any singing of God Save The King was countered with the Free State anthem, The Soldiers’ Song.
It was a day many in the state’s new police force, An Garda Síochána, came to dread and Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy wrote a bitter letter in 1932 to the Minister of Justice complaining about the manpower and effort required to keep participants from coming to blows.
In 1934 a new commemorative event was added to the Armistice Day roster: Patrick Byrne, a republican, set up an alternative, anti-war, republican Armistice Day service which would remember those who fought and died without the frills of Empire.
“I urged the new approach,” he wrote, “because of the disgust, I felt when I saw some ex-servicemen being set upon for wearing their medals and poppies on their ragged coats.
“I ask you to give the benefit of the doubt,” he urged his republican friends, “to those who wear poppies tomorrow. Many will wear them in memory of friends who were deluded into dying for fine ideals in a horrible capitalist war. Respect them for the love of their dead people.”
An Armistice Day stripped of overtly British symbols was the only acceptable way to mark the day for republicans and a new, more staunchly green Government, led by Éamon de Valera, banned the wearing of British uniforms in parades, the display of Union Jacks and the sing of the God Save The King - although the latter provision was summarily ignored.
In 1939 Dev, however, made it known he would attend the opening of the much delayed Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin.
His attendance, his office made clear, was conditional on, “the absence of anything which might tend to create ill-feeling or resentment or to embarrass the Government in the slightest degree”. Namely no British songs, no three cheers for the King and there shouldn’t be a Union Jack in sight.
Ultimately Dev sat out the ceremony - citing the looming threat of the conscription in Northern Ireland should a Second World War break out - but he certainly wasn’t alone in that; observance of Remembrance Day in southern Ireland was increasingly on the decline.
Once the main national commemoration had been moved outside of Dublin city center to Phoenix Park it almost gave people permission to forget about the event: it was out of sight and therefore mostly out of mind.
The death of over three and a half thousand men from southern Ireland during the Second World War did little to revive interest in the day. The Protestant population of the Irish Republic was in steep decline, the immediate relatives of the dead were dying off and those who returned from fighting Hitler in 1945 encountered such stigma that they hid their medals.
By the 1940’s even the former champion of the British connection, The Irish Times, had stopped reporting the event.
The event has rarely pricked the consciousness of the average citizen since with one grim exception: in 1987 an IRA bomb exploded at a packed Remembrance Sunday service in Enniskillen, the county town of Fermanagh.
Attendance at Remembrance Day services remains strong in the north where poppies are still common and memories of the dead are still greatly treasured and grieved over by the unionist community.
A large crowd had gathered close to the town’s war memorial as 11 o’clock drew near. The chatter of the mourners, however, was suddenly obscured by a loud explosion, followed by screams and the crash of bricks as the wall of a nearby building collapsed.
The bomb had been meant for the soldiers waiting to parade by the war memorial but the explosion happened much closer to the crowd and ended up killing 12 civilians and injuring a further 63. It was one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles and sent shockwaves around the world.
Loyalists paramilitaries in Belfast swiftly retaliated the next day by shooting a Catholic and a Protestant they mistook for a Catholic.
Margaret Thatcher, already clad in mourning black for the dead of two World Wars, described the incident as, “a blot on mankind”.
“Every nation,” she growled at the BBC, “should honor its dead… we should all be able to stand and honor them in peace.”
In Dublin, the leader of the opposition Fine Gael party, Alan Dukes, declared, ''These rats are now scurrying for cover in the sewers of their own violence''.
The controversy even rippled across the Atlantic after Bono launched a much-publicized attack on the “armchair” republicanism of Irish America.
“I’ve had enough of Irish Americans who haven’t been back to their country in 20 or 30 years, come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home. And the glory of the revolution,” he barked at concert goers in Denver, Colorado.
“Where’s the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old-age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day?”
It was, a spokesman for Sinn Féin admitted at the time, “a major setback” for the IRA and 10 years later Gerry Adams apologized for the attack.
Since then the quandary of the poppy and Remembrance Day has only occasionally flared up as an issue in Irish society: in 1991 President Mary Robinson began the tradition of attending the annual Sunday service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, each year laying a poppy wreath on behalf of the Irish nation.
Conspicuously, she never wore the poppy - although her husband did. Her successor, Mary McAleese, decided "after long deliberation” not to wear one to her Inauguration on Remembrance Day in 1997 but continued to lay the wreath at the Sunday service. Her successor, the current incumbent Michael D Higgins, has done likewise.
Derry-born James McClean who plays soccer for the English team of West Bromwich Albion has received death threats, been booed by his own club’s supporters and had bottles thrown at him for his refusal to wear a shirt with the red flower embroidered into it during matches.
“The Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me,” he wrote in a letter released to fans.
“For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.
“For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially - as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.”
In 2017 Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar reignited the controversy when he wore a shamrock poppy pin in the Dáil, thus becoming the first Irish head of government or state to wear the near century-old symbol.
"The Taoiseach was given the shamrock poppy by Senator Frank Feighan and the issue has also been supported by Senator Neale Richmond,” a spokesman for Varadkar said.
"The Shamrock Poppy recognizes Irish soldiers who fought in World War I. It was commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War by the Irish branch of the Royal British Legion to remember the 206,000 Irishmen that fought".
Reaction ranged from the blunt condemnation to praise for his actions.
“Delighted to see the Taoiseach commemorate young men like my great uncle Pvt. John McMahon who left the Liberties to fight for others liberty in Belgium but never came home,” his party colleague Councillor Keith Redmond tweeted.
“I see nationalists are trying to force Leo Varadkar not to wear the poppy. Yet when McClean doesn't wear one it's free choice. #Hypocrites,” another Twitter user, William Gillespie, opined.
“The new Irish attitude towards the British is nauseating,” blogger Cáit Trainor wrote, “the rehabilitation of Irish men who went to fight and die in an army, for a country that was occupying their native land and murdering its people is nothing short of despicable, they weren’t “our men”, yes they were Irish men, but they were Irish men in the British Army”.
With the centenary of the 1918 Armistice with Germany fast approaching, it’s safe to assume that debate on the appropriate way to honor the Irish dead of the Great War will ramp up.
Poppies might become a slightly more common sight on the streets of the Republic, attendance at Remembrance Day services will probably pick up a bit, children will be told about their nan’s great uncle who fell on the Somme. But it’ll be nothing like the 1920’s: for millions, it will just be another November day, there won’t be Union Jacks outside of the north and no priest will offer three cheers or prayers for the Queen. It’ll be a day of reflection in newspapers and for some ordinary citizens but it’ll no longer bring Ireland to a standstill.
The days of allegiance to the British Crown in the Irish Republic have slipped into the history books, as have memories of the fallen. For republicans the day was divisive and unpleasant; they hated its associations and their protests put off many who would otherwise have wished to have marked the anniversary. And so that is why the Irish no longer mark Veterans Day.
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* Originally published in 2017, updated in Nov 2021.