herald

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Proper recognition for 49,400 Irishmen who died in WWI only given nine decades later

Queen Elizabeth II chats with President Mary McAleese after the wreath laying ceremony at the Irish War Memorial Garden, at Islandbridge in Dublin during her 2001 visit. Photo: Frank McGrath
Queen Elizabeth II chats with President Mary McAleese after the wreath laying ceremony at the Irish War Memorial Garden, at Islandbridge in Dublin during her 2001 visit. Photo: Frank McGrath

Successive governments for almost 100 years have kept the World War 1 veterans hidden from view.

It's almost as if there was shame attached to the 49,400 who lost their lives in the fighting.

How else can it be explained that it took 91 years for an Irish government to finally, officially mark these deaths.

They did so at the Irish National War Memorial in Dublin's Islandbridge in 2005.

The shroud of shame was lifted for good at the same memorial in 2011 when Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese laid wreaths together at the site.

It was another woman who instigated the change 20 years earlier when she made history laying a poppy wreath at a Remembrance Day Service in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

President Mary Robinson became the first Irish Head of State to attend the service - a practice her successors have continued ever since.

Fourteen years later the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, John O'Donoghue formally launched the publication of Ireland's War Memorial Records at the Islandbridge park.

Airbrushed

The following year The Irish government decided to mark the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme as well as the Easter Rising.

Up to then, despite the fact that those who enlisted had come from virtually every village and town in the country, the first World War was almost airbrushed from official Irish history.

Sabina Purcell, has voluntarily set up the WW1 Veteran's Project to collect the names of veterans and ultimately have a memorial erected in their honour.

She explains the traditional attitude was "you were a hero if you died in the war but a coward if you returned and you were shunned.

"It was all about 1916 and the GPO, not about World War 1".

After the war the country had thousands of war veterans but at best the attitude towards them was one of antipathy.

At the other end of the scale hardline Republicans showed absolute animosity towards those who had fought with the British Army and even intimidated these veterans.

Since Queen Elizabeth's visit, however, Anglo-Irish relations are on a firm new footing and the Irish soldiers who fought in the Great War are being given due recognition.

When President Higgins and his wife Sabina went on the historic first visit to the UK by an Irish head of State, the Duke of York took them on a tour in Windsor castle to see the colours of the now disbanded Irish Regiments from the first World War.

These included the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, Prince of Wales's Leinster Regiment and the South Irish Horse.

This year there has been a whole series of events commemorating the Great War and today President Higgins will be accompanied by His Royal Highness Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, for the unveiling of a war memorial Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

The cross at Glasnevin's ceremonial plaza is close to two screen walls on which are carved the names of Irish people who died in both world wars while serving in British or Allied forces.

Up to now we were the only country in the world not to have a Cross of Sacrifice in cemeteries containing the bodies of 40 or more military personnel who died while serving with British or other Commonwealth forces during the first or second World Wars.

Hostility

There has clearly been a sea change since the era when veterans who survived the war often decided to live away from Ireland because of hostility and the fact that they no longer fitted in to Irish society in the wake of the Easter Rising.

csheehy@herald.ie

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