So, I have never celebrated Armistice Day in my life. I have wandered gloomily around Belgium in the rain on the day – it’s a public holiday there – desperately trying to find something for small children to do when everything is closed but I wouldn’t exactly say I was reflecting on the war.
Armistice is funny in Ireland. Obviously during the first world war, from 1914-1918, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom though many people including three of my four grandparents, were putting in significant efforts to change that situation. Post-independence, there seems to have been a feeling that to celebrate the Armistice was in some way, anti-Irish and against this State. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and I certainly never thought about the Armistice or celebrated it in any way. In fact, I think my first real awareness of it was after the Enniskillen bombing on Armistice Day 1987.
But Ireland has been making its way through what we’re calling “the decade of centenaries” remembering the turbulent times between 1912 and 1922 (the worst is yet to come – dealing with the civil war legacy) and in relation to this, there has been a great deal of talk of World War I and all those forgotten Irish men who went to the front and died. When I was in Cork at the Protestant Cathedral last weekend, I noticed lots of Armistice Day wreaths and memorials and I found myself thinking that it was odd that we never see that in Catholic churches when the overwhelming majority of those killed must have been Catholics.
However, today there was, to my great surprise, a big crowd at mass and the priest made it clear that it was a memorial mass for all the parishioners who had died in what he called “The Great War” – definitely sounded very odd from the pulpit. But they read the names of the parishioners who died in the war and the choir sang and we remembered the dead of the last year (November is the month of the dead for Catholics anyway so it was in keeping) and processed down the church with our candles. It was still surprising to see a woman in the congregation wearing a poppy. I suppose it’s a strand of Irish history that we haven’t really acknowledged very much. That seems changed for good now. It’s taken a while.
I have grandfathers in the Great War, some of whom were genuinely heroic, others merely dead before their time, in the WW2 my father was actively engaged in Burma and his brother, who was in the navy survived being torpedoed in the Atlantic. I have numerous relatives in the armed forces but I went into trade instead.
I find the whole Remembrance thing rather manufactured. The two world wars were probably the only time in recent memory that whole populations were involved and there was a genuine connection between civilian and military. I find the wars of the 21st Century, with their vain glorious aims and volunteer soldiers difficult to mourn. The British state has a long and consistent history of ignoring its old man soldiers, anyone who joins up should realise if they get hurt they are on their own.
It must be difficult in Ireland as there are many conflicting loyalties and no one in a civil war has right on their side, just shades of grey.
How interesting, Charles about your own family. Yes it is a bit odd in Ireland but it seems so strange now that some 200,000 Irish men fought in WW1, about 40,000 of them died and nobody ever mentioned it except the Protestants. That’s a little bit of a caricature but not much.