Re-thinking 1914, Ireland and the Great War in 2014

Re-thinking 1914, Ireland and the Great War in 2014

Maeve Casserly (National Library of Ireland) examines Irish memory of World War One and discusses two examples of memorial, unveiled in July 2014, to promote a shared history of the war.

Commemoration is broadly understood as an act of remembrance which can create, reinforce or reinvent histories. Theorists such as Marianne Hirsch and Walter Benjamin have defined ethical commemoration as adhering to the social imperative of inclusivity, which also recognises contingent differences between groups in a fair and respectful manner. The case studies I will be discussing are examples of conflict commemoration (commemoration of conflict and commemoration with conflicted narratives) which have resonance across Ireland and the UK.

Due to the complex nature of the Irish experience in World War One, remembrance of the war has been a contentious issue. After the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, the Irish Free State sought to distance itself from the ‘British’ affair. Recently however, there have been several important cases of shared remembrance, such as the opening of the Island of Ireland Peace Park by Irish President Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert II of Belgium in Messines in November 1998. As part of the on-going ‘Decade of Centenaries’ (2012-2013) the most appropriate way to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI has been heavily debated. The unveiling of two memorials, ‘The Tree of Remembrance’ in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, are part of this dialogue of remembrance.

In the lead up to the unveiling of the Tree of Remembrance, I interviewed Andrew Smith, Educational Officer in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His goal for the commemoration was to create an inclusive relationship between the Cathedral and the people of Ireland, as in the past Remembrance Day ceremonies held in the Cathedral were traditionally associated with Southern-Anglican Irish community. Through the Tree of Remembrance St. Patrick’s Cathedral wanted to create a universal form of commemoration which would resonate across all religions and social divides.[i]

The barren and beautiful 18ft steel tree resides in the North Transcript of the Cathedral with the disintegrating Irish regimental flags hanging overhead, and is dedicated to all those who have been affected by conflict. Visitors to the barren tree are encouraged to tie a ‘leaf’ with their own message on if for someone who had been affected by conflict. As of 3 February 2015, over 10,000 messages have been left on the memorial. The simple, neutral symbol of the tree breaks away from the traditional war memorial, the idea is that people attaching their leaf to the tree will give it a new life and beauty. Ultimately memory and remembrance is the re-birth of this war-torn tree.

 The Glasnevin Trust which manages the cemetery, known as a ‘republican Valhalla’[ii], wanted to show that it equally recognised the sacrifice of the men who lost their lives in World War One as those that died for the Irish republican cause. George McCullough, CEO of the Trust, said the Cross was ‘An Irish stone for Irish men.[iii] Significantly, the Cross is made from Irish limestone, dug from a quarry in Co. Kilkenny and carved in Co. Laois.

On 31 July 2014, the Cross was unveiled at a ceremony attended by members of state from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain, Irish Army veterans, and members of the public. The Cross was a cooperative project between the Glasnevin Trust and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A positive relationship has been building between the two institutions for over a decade, and the Cross of Sacrifice is a public recognition of this. The most important aspect of the Cross is that it is an expression of Anglo-Irish relations, not through a narrative of British oppression, but through a shared experience of loss. Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers described the site in Glasnevin as ‘a place to come together in quiet contemplation.’[iv] The erection of this monument seeks to illustrate that this shared history extends not only over the border, but across the Irish Sea.

Just as a climate of tolerance, acceptance and appreciation of difference has encouraged St. Patrick’s Cathedral to throw open its doors and invite everyone to add to the Tree of Remembrance, so too has the improved political and diplomatic climate between Ireland and the UK greatly influenced the construction of the Cross of Sacrifice. ‘Official Ireland’ accepts and embraces the sacrifices of the men and women of the Great War as part of our shared history. They have no longer been left to linger in neglect and obscurity.

[i] Andrew Smith, (Education Officer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral) interview, 6th June 2014.

[ii] Edward Madigan, (former resident historian at CWGC) speech givent ‘Opening Ceremony of the Cross of Sacrifice’, Glasnevin Cemetery, 31 July 2014

[iii] George McCullough, (CEO Glasneving Trust), interview 6 July 2014

[iv] Theresa Villiers (Northern Ireland Secretary of state), speech given at ‘Opening Ceremony of the Cross of Sacrifice’, Glasnevin Cemetery, 31 July 2014.

Maeve Casserly is the current recipient of the National Library of Ireland Research Studentship. She has completed an M.Phil in Public History and Cultural Heritage and a BA in History and Political Science from Trinity College Dublin. Maeve is interested in history and memory and has undertaken several studies of the commemoration of contested periods in Irish history.

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