but I am a bit just now.
Last Sunday, 13th November, I was sitting, at 11.00am, in the Galway Hooker in Heuston Station, Dublin waiting for a train home to Cork (hilariously, my partner’s daughter, phoning him, thought he was in Houston, Texas). Silently, and unnoticed by other punters, the Remembrance Day commemorations, in London, were playing out on the TV screen.
We were awaiting the two minutes’ silence.
Had I been alone, and thus unable to embarrass my partner, I would have mounted the stairs to the gallery of the pub to ask everyone to respect the moment marking the end of the First World War, in which, 35,000 Irish served (and many more in British Regiments, and of Irish heritage in Commonwealth regiments) and, of whom, many thousands were killed or maimed. But he was there and so I spared him that embarrassment and just sat there with him as our companions munched their way through belated full Irish breakfasts, unaware of the event playing out above their heads.
The Munster Fusiliers (and soldiers from many other regiments) are sorely neglected in their homeland in terms of First World War memorials and commemorations. We were reminded of this when their Battle of the Somme remembrance wreaths were thrown into the Lee earlier this year.
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is a full stop that has punctuated my life since I was born. I am not militaristic and neither was my father. But, nevertheless, after a year studying at the Sorbonne in 1938 and going up to the University of Cambridge in September 1939, at the age of 19, he found himself an officer in the Second World War, named ‘the emergency’ at the time in Ireland.
As a republican and left-winger he would have not have fought in the 1914-1918 war. He would, like my two grandfathers, have been a conscientious objector. But here, facing him, was Hitler and National Socialism. So my father, Alan Smith, a puny, literary and art-loving young man, who, because of his university, was officer class, and, being good at trigonometry he was sent to the artillery so that he could work out how to aim the guns. He ended up at D Day + 1, being ‘steady under fire’.
Where was Ireland then? It was introspective, dreaming of ‘a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youth and the laughter of happy maiden’. It sounds suspiciously like Hitler’s Aryan ideal, which is still encapsulated in Berlin’s 1936 Olympic stadium which I saw last month on a visit to that fine city.
But there were, always available, (often impoverished) young men and women, willing to serve in the British army and to send money home to their families. And there were those who hated the stultifying Irish society that was ruled from Dublin, in an almost, medieval, or at least, Victorian manner, closing down freedom and denying thought.
Reading John Bruton’s article in ‘The Centenary Conversations’ (p19), which argues that “commemoration should emphasise non-violent events” I was struck, in a way that I have not not been previously, by the idea that “the 1916 Rising and Proclamation” should not be “treat[ed] as the foundation event of our democracy”.
This uprising, he says, and I agree, “involved the deliberate taking of human life, in the middle of a war, and in alliance with the central powers, the first World War grouping that included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. The Rising lacked a prior democratic mandate of any kind and was in breach of a countermanding order.” For me, Bruton’s key phrase is “in the middle of a war”; also important is his noting of the rebels’ connections with Germany.
To return to the point, Armistice Day, is a commemoration of the ending of a violent event, rather than the violent event itself. Can that be argued for commemoration of the Easter Rising? If you commend Bruton’s remarks then you should not really celebrate an uprising which deflected resources from a world war which was fought to establish the self-determination of small nations; especially given the contribution to the hard-won victory by soldiers from the island of Ireland. I commend Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way to anyone wanting to engage with the conflicting ideas of this period.
Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005
Bruton, J. ‘Commemoration should emphasise non-violent events’. The Irish Times. 29th October 2016.
DeValera, E. Broadcast to the People of Ireland. 1943.
Fidler, Matt. ‘Remembrance Day around the world in pictures’. The Guardian website. 11th November 1916.
Other blogs relating to the First World War can be found on my other site:
You might also like Dadland on this site.