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No poppy, please

Pádraig Yeates

Last year I was heavily involved in commemorating the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913. I was involved, as were a lot of other people, not just because it had been largely forgotten about but because of the values it encapsulated – social solidarity, the right to equality of treatment no matter who or what you are, the right to freedom of association, the right to representation, the right to be in a trade union, the right to decent pay and conditions, the right to a roof over your head.

We commemorated the lockout because the issues at stake were as important and as relevant ‑ and as contested ‑ today as they were a hundred years ago. But I look at the Centenary of the Great War and I have to ask myself what values are we commemorating? Beyond the concept of heroic sacrifice I can’t think of any, and if we are remembering heroic sacrifice, heroic sacrifice for what?

The vast majority of combatants were mobilised by Hohenzollern Germany, Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian, British and Ottoman empires to fight and die for them. None of these exist any more.

The most persistent argument I have heard put forward in Ireland in recent years for commemorating the Great War is to remember all the Irishmen who served in the British armed forces and were subsequently forgotten. The reality is that they were not forgotten, by their own at least. There were mass commemorations every year on the Sunday nearest Remembrance Day until long afterwards. You only have to look at the newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s to see them.

Up until 1932 Free State Government Ministers attended commemorations each November in Whitehall, as well as in Dublin. When Fianna Fáil came to power official Ireland ceased honouring the Great War dead but it did not prevent commemorations from taking place. Numbers attending fell but so did the number of survivors and more current events were crying out for public attention. One of them was the Spanish Civil War, which erupted in the summer of 1936.

Nevertheless, in November of that year a thousand Catholic ex-servicemen formed up behind the British Legion flag in Beresford Place, outside Liberty Hall, and marched to the Pro-Cathedral for a commemorative Mass, while their Protestant counterparts formed up in St Stephen’s Green and marched to St Patrick’s Cathedral. The Old Contemptibles Association, the Royal Irish Fusiliers Old Comrades Association, the Irish Horse Old Comrades Association and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Old Comrades Association all attended these services and some firms, such as the GSWR and Guinness held ceremonies to commemorate their own war dead at Broadstone, Kingsbridge and James’s Gate.

The old IRA Association objected to these events, as it usually did. In 1936 it called on the President of the Free State Executive, Eamon de Valera, to “prohibit these imperialistic displays”.

Eighteen years after the end of the First World War, fifteen years after the end of the War of Independence and thirteen years after the end of the Irish Civil War, “old comrades” were still fighting old conflicts, not just here but across Europe. Three years later a new generation was fighting in the second act of the great European civil war. It is hard to kill a bad thing, but while it might be argued that the First World War was a war that should never have been fought, the Second World War was one that had to be fought if European civilisation was to survive, however mutilated by the process.

The European Union and that apparent aberration, the Russian Revolution of 1917, were among the most significant products of the Great War. The former sought to reconcile nationalist aspirations with the notion, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”. The Russian revolution sought to replace competing nationalisms with a universal brotherhood, and sisterhood, of the human race based on the emancipation of the working class.

The Soviet Union has disappeared, as have most of its satellite states. The much younger European Union survives, but it is currently struggling to contain the aggressive nationalist tendencies of the right-wing parties in power across many of its newer member states in eastern Europe. Nationalism has been the driving ideology behind most wars on this continent since the French Revolution. The last major conflict was in the Balkans, where two nations, Serbs and Croats, who speak the same language but subscribe to two slightly different varieties of Christianity, saw power sharing as a zero-sum game. Does that remind anyone of a conflict nearer home?

I am old enough to remember the start of the current Northern troubles. I was in Belfast the week internment was introduced in August 1971. The British army behaved brutally and often without restraint and yet I have to say that without its presence in Northern Ireland in the 1970s I think we would have had our own Srebrenicas and Sarajevos. Hopefully the current conflict in the Ukraine, can be contained without developing into a full-blown war, but it is a reminder that there are still contested zones and identities across Europe, from the Basque country in the south to the Baltic states in the North. Added to the old identities are pockets of ethnic Russians, the residue of the old Soviet empire, planters, who are the “Orangemen” of our era.

It is depressing to have to recall that the First World War broke out because the political elite that ruled Europe after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 failed to keep pace with the social, economic, technological and cultural changes that transformed European civilisation in the following century. In the summer of 1914 three of the key decision-makers were Franz Joseph of Austria Hungary, who had been emperor since the failed revolution of 1848, Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. All of these men were inadequate to the challenges that confronted them in the summer of 1914. The armed alliances that each ultimately relied upon as a guarantee against war ultimately had the opposite effect. The ruling elites could not prevent a couple of shots fired by a dissident Serb nationalist from plunging Europe into a war that resulted in millions of people dying.

Would Ireland have been spared war if the great powers had resolved their differences in 1914? It seems unlikely. By the summer of 1914 the 100,000-strong Ulster Volunteer Force had assembled perhaps as many as 60,000 weapons to resist Home Rule by force and militant nationalists were belatedly beginning to arm. John Redmond was still the undisputed leader of nationalist Ireland but his political capital was rapidly dwindling. His offer to accept partition as a temporary expedient in 1914 seriously wounded him. Important figures such as William Martin Murphy, owner of the Irish Independent newspaper empire and the key political strategist of the Catholic Church, Dr William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin, never forgave him and lost faith in his capacity to deliver on the nationalist agenda.

Would the faltering Liberal government have held the ring when the low-level sectarian conflict already taking place in the North had evolved into something more serious? Probably, but it almost certainly would not have prevented it. We might well have witnessed something similar to the events that emerged in the War of Independence or the more recent Northern Ireland troubles on a much greater scale. And we should not forget that the seeming inevitability of serious conflict in Ireland was a contributory factor to the German decision to risk British involvement in the First World War by its violation of Belgian neutrality in August 1914.

However, I would argue that, paradoxically, the outbreak of the war allowed the conflict that did emerge in Ireland to be much less violent and politically regressive than might otherwise have been the case. For a start, the outbreak of war saw tens of thousands of potential combatants enrolled in the British army – 50,942 from Belfast and 28,268 from Dublin alone. For another, the failure of the Easter Rising saw the Irish Volunteers disarmed. They would never recover from those losses sufficiently to pose a serious military threat to unionists or the British in subsequent years.

Also, if the Great War united the fractured British establishment to confront militant Irish nationalism in a way that was inconceivable beforehand it also created the space in which more original, radical nationalists could challenge the deeply conservative Home Rule consensus. A whole host of writers and propagandists, including four signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, Pádraic Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett put forward new and often original concepts of Irish nationality.

The proclamation itself was a wonderful document. It could not have been written anywhere in Ireland except Dublin and it could not have been written at any other time except during a war when Britain was involved in a life and death struggle. The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil was the other outstanding political legacy of this period. (I think we could include Sean O’Casey’s Constitution of the Irish Citizen Army, from which the proclamation draws some of its inspiration.) I don’t think it is pure coincidence that the last comparable outburst of imaginative political thought within Irish nationalism came during a similar cataclysmic conflict, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The real possibility of throwing off British rule opened new intellectual horizons for the United Irishmen as it did for the generation of 1916. The proclamation declared “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland”. It guaranteed “civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”, including women – the half of the population that Redmondism could not bring itself to enfranchise. The proclamation also resolved to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation “oblivious of differences”.

The Democratic Programme went even further, promising “to resume possession of the nation’s wealth ... whenever the trust is abused”, to aim at “the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation” and “to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland”.

I would argue that from 1913 until 1921 Dublin was the political, cultural and conceptual capital of Ireland from which most of the fresh and original ideas flowed. Traditional currents of thought were temporarily subverted by the uncertainties and possibilities created by the war and the Easter Rising provided a platform on which novel new ideas could be debated. It would take some time for the traditional, Catholic nationalist consensus to reassert itself. In that it was helped by some aspects of militant nationalism, the most significant of which was the Belfast Boycott. If Redmond conceded the principle of partition, Sinn Féin and the IRA built the wall that divided north and south – albeit provoked by the Belfast pogroms. (It is hard to envisage any sane person looking forward to that centenary.) The task of reining in radical nationalism to conform with the dominant ethos in the South gathered pace after the truce. The general election of June 1922 marked the end of the one-party Sinn Féin-IRA state. The Civil War that followed ultimately ushered in the return to normality of Irish politics, when the parish pump resumed its traditional primacy, albeit in rather violent and convoluted ways.

Similar things were happening across Europe. Revolution, civil war, inter-state and ethnic conflicts were the norm in many places after 1918. There were more men under arms in the early 1920s than at the outbreak of the First World War. Boundaries changed dramatically. Hungary shrank, Romania expanded, Poland re-emerged as a nation, new countries such as the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and above all the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics emerged. There were huge transfers of population, with 1.2 million Greeks alone forced to leave the ancestral homes they had occupied in Anatolia for over two and a half thousand years and resettle in their Greek “homeland”. But large ethnic minorities remained captive within the new so-called nation states, of which the most fatal to European peace would ultimately prove to be the Sudeten Germans.

It may not be much consolation to people who believe that veterans of the Great War were unjustly forgotten afterwards but the same thing happened in Britain and, I suspect, further afield, especially after the Second World War, when people had fresher and even more terrible experiences to get over. I think it was forgotten because many people who lived through the first half of the twentieth century wanted to forget it. The power of the Russian Revolution to capture the imagination of millions was based on the hope, misplaced as it ultimately was, that the system that created the Great War could be changed: that the emperors, the capitalists, the bloodsuckers in all their guises could be overthrown and ordinary people could inherit and enjoy the wealth they had created unfettered. It was only when the fiftieth anniversary of the Great War occurred in 1964 that it resumed a central place in the British public memory with a welter of books, magazine series and TV programmes. These provided a largely sentimentalised version of events. It was informed by greater awareness of the wider suffering the war inflicted, but the military core of commemoration remained intact. Within that core was a militarist culture that I believe still exists today and, increasingly since the Falklands War, the poppy has been used by the British establishment to support foreign military adventures.

I must say I have difficulty dealing with these conflicting legacies myself. Several members of my own family served in the British armed forces, including my grandfather and father. I never knew my grandfather and I have no idea what he thought about anything but I do know that my father, who served in the British army in the Second World War had no time for the British establishment. I suspect that his time in the army were the best years of his life but he loathed the values of its officer class and despised the barrack room culture that appealed to the basest human instincts and prejudices. His attitude was common among men I met who had served in the British armed forces during the Second World War; and we should not forget it was the servicemen’s vote that put Churchill out in 1945.

By the way, whatever unit my father served in as a member of the Pioneer Corps he was dubbed “Paddy” as soon as he opened his mouth. In early 1943 he was awarded the George Medal for saving the lives of other soldiers in North Africa and, like other servicemen granted a major gallantry award, he received it from King George VI at war’s end. When the king shook his hand and said “Congratulations Paddy” he replied “Thanks Kingy”, for which my mother never forgave him. However crass his reply, it was his way of saying he was not fighting for king and country, to save the British empire or to keep his betters in the manner to which they felt entitled. He never wore a poppy, never joined the British Legion or attended a Remembrance Day commemoration. Like tens of thousands of other Second World War veterans he became a convinced socialist as a result of his wartime service and began fighting for a better world. The ranks of the labour movement in Britain after the Second World War were filled by these men. 

Some of the legacy of the welfare state these men built has survived, such as the NHS; more of it has been thrown away in the name of deregulation and the unfettered pursuit of profit. It is perhaps fitting that we are commemorating the Great War in such an ambience because it certainly reflects the world and values of 1914 rather than 1945. If we only look at the past with a sentimental eye, it is not only a waste of time but a dangerous illusion. We should be as careful about what we remember as we should be about what we wish for.

20/10/2014

This is a very slightly edited version of a talk delivered for National Heritage Week in August this year.

Padraig Yeates is a journalist and author whose books include A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 and A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921.

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