DCSIMG

By Mick Mulholland

Our hidden past as a country continues to confront us.

Omissions and commissions are toppling out of the social and political woodwork, tsunami-like.

And so it is with the commemoration of the Irish men who died in the First World War. Gay Byrne did a revealing documentary recently on his own father’s participation in the Great War and how it was something to keep largely quiet, particularly in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.

Mr Byrne became emotional at one stage, an 80-year-old man remembering the very private suffering of his father and those comrades who survived that terrible conflict. He returned to his old family home in Rialto, Dublin, and spoke of the terrible nightmares his father endured. They were never spoken about at the time.

These former soldiers, who acted in good faith and, in some cases, out of grim economic necessity, were to hold their silence. In some respects, the new State thought them to have betrayed their country.

They had not, of course. Why was this allowed to happen? It could be argued that those who caused the Civil War betrayed their country, given that its legacy would last for decades. It contributed, to a degree, to the poverty of the new State when our way of dealing with economic problems was to force people on to the emigrant ship.

Such was the horror of the Great War that many of those who participated might have been privately relieved to blot it out of their minds. Mind you, it was very difficult for most of them. There was the sense of dislocation when they returned, and, above all, the horrible return to the trenches that came to their minds in the dead of night and resulted in the kind of nightmares suffered by people like Gay Byrne’s father.

One of the most poignant stories of a veteran was told on radio by a cousin. The former soldier returned to his home in rural Ireland, a quiet man with terrible memories and afraid to talk about his experiences because the country was in the grip of a militant nationalist fervour. He never married, but he was close to his nieces and nephews. He held down a job locally which he diligently attended to. In later life, he produced the hidden medals. By then, he was old and full of traumatic memories and no small measure of hidden pain.

In those post-Independence decades, Britain was the enemy and the cause of all our problems. For some politicians, it was a convenient historical narrative.

Those who served in power in the aftermath of the Second World War, in particular, failed to lift the country to any degree. As the 1940s and ‘50s continued, some of the more astute politicians and senior civil servants were questioning if the country had any future at all.

And still the same old political narrative was put forward: unite the country and restore the language and all would be right. God help us. It was precious little comfort to the thousands of young Irish men and women who took the emigrant boat, many ill-prepared for what lay ahead. In the decade between 1951 and ’61, some 400,000 people emigrated, a truly shocking exodus.

And in those years, what veteran of the Great War would raise his head above the parapet to justify his participation in a conflict with the ancient enemy?

The country was living a grotesque lie. Sean Lemass was one of the few with courage to identify it. And, when he became Taoiseach in 1959, he spoke of the need to bring about an economic revolution. He spoke of the honour of the men who fought in the Great War, but there were few around to join him.

President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny participated recently in ceremonies to mark the participation of Irish soldiers in the Great War. Appropriately, the ceremonies were held in the Dublin’s Royal Hospital Kilmainham, a former home for old soldiers. “It is fitting that we remember here today all those Irish men and women who died in past wars or in service with the UN”, said the President. “This year in particular we remember all those who died in the Great War.”

There was a time when those Irish men who fought in the Great War would not have been mentioned in the same breath by a President as those who lost their lives with the UN. The Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said Ireland had a human duty to remember the experience and loss involved. And so it has.

 

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