When I began visiting Ireland in 1995, I kept walking into anti-British diatribes. The Irish lead most European rankings for friendliness and politeness, and yet my English accent provoked tirades against colonialism, British deceit over Northern Ireland, et cetera. This “good Irish, bad British” story is still fed to visiting “Irish-Americans”. For many Irish in the diaspora, this version of history is as central to Irish identity as Monday’s St Patrick’s day.
The “bad British” story isn’t wrong. Britain often was a cruel colonial master. It killed many Irish people before Ireland gained independence in 1922. But the old story left something out: the first world war, in which about 210,000 Irish volunteers fought for Britain. They were mostly Catholics. None was conscripted. Only in the 1990s did most Irish begin acknowledging this history – a history that suggests Catholic Ireland and Britain weren’t always adversaries. Now, on the centenary of that war, even Northern Irish Catholics are rediscovering their men killed fighting for Britain. Rethinking the war has probably helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. It’s also a model for other warring peoples – such as Israelis and Palestinians – to revisit their history.
In 1914, most Irish supported Britain’s entry into the war, according to historian Keith Jeffery. Irishmen joined the army with various motives. Some needed a job. Others thought their service would persuade Brits that Ireland deserved independence. And many fought because they believed in the British empire. Generations of Irishmen had been British soldiers, or helped rule India. The Irish nationalist MP Joe Devlin said that by fighting in Flanders, his countrymen could claim “an increasing share in the work and the glory of the empire, which the blood and brains of Irishmen have done so much to create”. The Irish weren’t simply colonised by Britain. They were also colonisers. The British-Irish relationship was unusually complex.
Yet while Irishmen were off fighting, Ireland changed. In 1916, Dublin rebels launched the Easter Rising. The British, angry at being inconvenienced during a world war, executed the leaders. This enraged the Irish. Some Irishmen who had fought for Britain in Flanders were soon fighting against it, in Ireland’s war of independence from 1919 to 1921.
Independence changed everything. The new state needed a nationalist narrative. The official story became that all Irish Catholics had always hated British rule. The other morning I walked around Dublin with Arran Henderson, who runs the tour company Dublin Decoded. The city’s many sites of martyrdom all tell the same story: heroic Irish people killed by Brits. There’s the General Post Office, scene of the Easter Rising; the streets named for the Rising’s dead leaders; Croke Park, scene of a British massacre in 1920, and so on. Dublin is a shrine to the 1,000 Irish who died for independence.
But it scarcely mentions the nearly 50,000 Irish who died in the first world war. For decades, their service for Britain didn’t fit the Irish state’s preferred narrative. Edwin Lutyens’ memorial garden in Dublin for the dead of that war was practically abandoned. In Ireland, only Protestants felt quite comfortable commemorating the war. And Northern Irish Protestants commemorated it almost obsessively. They felt their blood sacrifice had bought their right to remain British forever.
Catholic families remembered the war privately. There were few memorials where a widow could take her children to tell them about their father. Some boys threw stones at war veterans. Tellingly, the arch on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green, which commemorates Irish soldiers killed fighting for Britain in the Boer war, is nicknamed “Traitors’ Gate”.
Only from the 1990s, as Britain and Ireland launched the Northern Irish peace process, did the Irish memorialise the first world war en masse.
Often families drove the effort. In Ireland, like everywhere else in Europe, people’s understanding of the conflict shifted from national glory to individual tragedy. In 1998, an Irish “peace park” was created in Messines, Belgium, where Irish Protestant and Catholic soldiers had died together – showing that Ireland’s two main religions weren’t always enemies.
When Queen Elizabeth first visited Ireland in 2011, she commemorated the Irish dead of the first world war and the dead of the Easter Rising. I never hear anti-British diatribes in Ireland any more.
Now, even Northern Irish Catholic republicans are commemorating the war. After all, many of their ancestors fought in it. Last November, unprecedentedly, Belfast’s Sinn Féin mayor attended the city’s Armistice Day ceremony. Sinn Féin, remember, is the party long affiliated with the anti-British terrorist Irish Republican Army.
History matters in political conflicts. Graham Walker, political historian at Queen’s University Belfast, says Sinn Féin wants to show its new moderation by paying respect to Protestant heritage. Paying historical respect can win over an enemy. That’s why Nelson Mandela, in his first meeting with South Africa’s Afrikaner president PW Botha, spoke learnedly about Afrikaner suffering in the Boer war. Agreeing about history can help enemies agree about the present. If Israelis and Palestinians showed each other’s history any respect, it might actually make a difference. As Northern Ireland demonstrates, ethnic conflicts can end.
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