The Great War and Memory in Irish Culture 1918–2010

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Academica Press

ISBN 9781936320264

Reviewed by
Tomás Irish

Gr8 War & Memory II

There has been an explosion of interest in Ireland’s experience of the Great War in recent years. As the centenary of the outbreak of the war approaches, scholarly and popular interest has focused not only on the Irish experience of war but also on how the participation of over 200,000 Irishmen was marginalised in official and popular memory in subsequent decades.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge are frequently cited as the defining example of this historical neglect. While construction began in 1931, the formal opening of the memorial was postponed owing to the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and thereafter the memorial gardens fell into dereliction and disrepair. Spurred by a revival of interest in the Great War in the late 1980s, refurbishments were complete by 1994 and the memorial was belatedly opened by then Minister for Finance Bertie Ahern. As Jason Myers writes here, however, this only tells part of the story. Official memory, dictated by the state, was different from the vernacular memory of ordinary Irish people, hundreds of thousands of whom were touched by the experience of war. Myers’s book traces the evolution of different strands of memory of the war across the island of Ireland from 1918.

Myers sets himself the difficult task of studying ‘the voiceless mass that kept the memory of the war alive for so many years in a wide variety of ways’ rather than looking at the marginal figures who sought to undermine it. To do so, he adopts a broad definition of memory, looking at public ceremonials, war memorials, the fate of ex-servicemen, the activities of the British Legion, and the perpetuation of the memory of the war in popular culture. He studies these vectors of memory across nine decades, showing not only the many ways in which memory can be perpetuated but also, more importantly, the way in which memory evolved over time in response to political and social changes.

The book opens by considering the fate of Irish ex-servicemen. In both North and South they constituted an underprivileged group who often lacked regular employment or decent housing. The situation was worse in the Free State, where a social stigma soon attached itself to war service and where the government, especially after Fianna Fáil’s accession to power in 1932, was disinterested in substantially aiding housing schemes for ex-soldiers. Remembrance Day services have featured prominently in accounts of the contentious memory of the war in Ireland. Myers takes four case-studies (Dublin, Cork, Derry and Belfast), showing that our understandings of First World War remembrance should not be skewed by ‘capital-centric’ narratives. While Dublin-based ceremonies were sites of republican protest and agitation in the 1920s and ’30s, their equivalents in Cork experienced no such disruption. In the North, the Battle of the Somme quickly became central to Remembrance Day ceremonials, entrenching the politics of the separation of North and South. Across the island of Ireland, poppy sales increased throughout the 1920s, and from 1928 battlefield pilgrimages became popular amongst Irish tourists, showing an appetite for the remembrance of the war. The election of Fianna Fáil in 1932, however, began the process of ‘forgetting the war’ in the Free State, with restrictions placed on official Remembrance Day activities and the sale of poppies, as the memory of the war was incompatible with Eamon de Valera’s vision of an Irish republic.

The memory of the war was also perpetuated by the construction of war memorials in the 1920s. Dublin, Cork, Derry and Belfast are again the case-studies. Myers argues that the case of Islandbridge is not representative of Ireland as a whole, as many towns have public memorials to the war dead dating from this period. Myers’s move away from a Dublin-centred view of the subject is a strength, although more could be said about the many monuments erected by schools, universities, sports clubs and churches in the same period. Increasingly overlooked at an official level, the needs of ex-servicemen were met by the British Legion in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

The 1960s were a key decade in interpreting memories of the war. In the South, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising meant that Irish participation in the Great War was not addressed in official commemorations. In the North, the exploits of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme in 1916 underpinned Northern partitioned identity. The outbreak of violence in the North in the late 1960s revived sectarian animosities; in 1971 a British Legion office in Dublin was attacked and Remembrance Day parades were cancelled, North and South. The flare-up of violence led to a reassessment of the national historical narratives and a growing emphasis on a shared history, rooted in the Great War. This idea slowly saw expression in folk music, popular literature, academic history and journalism.

Myers argues that it was the IRA bombings of a Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen in 1987, killing eleven civilians, which transformed the memory of the Great War in Ireland into a unifying force. President Mary Robinson’s attendance at a Remembrance Day service in 1993 was the first such action by a head of state in the Republic, while the official inauguration of the National War Memorial Gardens the following year was also deeply significant. Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011, when she visited both the Garden of Remembrance and Islandbridge, demonstrated how far the memory of the war had been restored to a central position at both an official and a vernacular level in modern Ireland. Myers’s book tells this story well, and it is both new and familiar—much like memories of the war itself.

Tomás Irish is a post-doctoral research fellow and Associate Director of the Centre for War Studies, Trinity College, Dublin.


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