Tuesday, 17 May 2011
Don't Mention The War
According to Lisa Simpson all wars are wrong apart from the American War of Independence and the Second World War. As they didn't officially participate in either that causes a few problems when it comes to war memorials in Ireland.
The Queen today laid a wreath at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom". It was a tricky thing for a British Head of State to do, honouring those who fought against us, but as a significant proportion of the world has fought wars of liberation against us, she's had quite a lot of practise.
Remembering their war dead though is also a sensitive problem for the Irish.
The Garden of Remembrance is a moving place with a wonderful statue of The Children of Lir, dying at the moment of liberation.
The memorial is dedicated to those who died fighting the British occupation from 1798 to 1921. The second date shows the problem. 1921 was the date of the formation of the Irish Free State, and also the start of the Irish Civil War. If you were in the old IRA in 1921 and were killed by a Brit soldier you’re in the Garden of Remembrance. If you were killed by an Irish soldier with a British rifle, you're not.
Instead Irish have tended to remember not the end of their final struggle for freedom, but the beginning; the Easter Uprising.
Easter 1916 pushed almost all the right buttons; a glorious, romantic, decisive, failure. It was also a complete cock up, with 90% of the troops not turning up, and the survivors were pelted with rotten fruit afterwards by an ungrateful population. But the subsequent retribution by the authorities stirred up the latent republicanism in the Irish and, as W B Yeats put it, a terrible beauty was born.
The war of urban assassination and rural guerilla warfare then instigated by Michael Collins and Tom Barry was inglorious, unromantic, and indecisive. The most important battle of the war, the ambush at Crossbarry, although a significant victory for the IRA, is still highly contentious and the one fact everyone can agree on is that the last British soldiers killed were shot whilst waving a flag of truce.
Commemorations began seriously in 1966, with an event which, if you'd made it up, would have got you accused of stereotyping. The Garden of Remembrance was opened, which was great, but the march past by the Irish Army was somewhat spoilt by the empty VIP grandstand - someone had forgotten to sent out the invites.
The IRA also decided to play their part, neatly blowing up the column in the middle of O'Connell street on which a statue of Admiral Nelson stood. The Irish Army then turned up to blow poor Nelson up again so the bits could be carried away by lorry, but being somewhat less proficient with explosives than the RAs ended up taking out every window in the street in the process.
The spot on which old Nelson stood is now the impressively spikey Spire of Dublin, but before that it was occupied by a piece of modern art known locally as the "floozie in the Jacuzzi", and O'Connell street now only has statues of two famous adulterers (Thomas Parnell and O'Connell himself).
The result was National Day of Commemoration, held on the nearest Sunday to July 11th. The idea was to remember the dead of the wars of liberation, both World Wars and modern Irish soldiers who've died serving as UN Peacekeepers.
A reasonable compromise, but as some have pointed out the rather woolly wording of what the day actually commemorates does mean that the Blue Shirts who fought for Franco also get remembered. Fair enough I suppose, they were soldiers too, and by all accounts they killed more fascists than republicans.
All told the Queen probably had the easier job, she just dumped the flowers and ran. Ireland meanwhile is getting ready for the centenary of the Easter Uprising in five years time. They hope that by then the chaps at the top of the page will be ancient history, but if not they might just be creating even more problems for themselves.