As I wrote last week, I had not thought commemorating the centenary of the First World War need be a matter of controversy. But one of the reasons why it is worth doing – and worth doing properly and on a large scale – is that the First World War is complicated.

Consider the photograph at the top of this post. It was taken on Armistice Day in 1924. In Dublin.

Yes, Dublin. The Union Flag is flown. The National Anthem – ie, God Save the King – is sung. A Celtic Cross is erected on College Green prior to its transportation to France where it would serve as a memorial to the 16th Irish Division. Some reports estimate as many as 50,000 Irishmen attended the commemoration. (There is British Pathe footage of it here). The Irish Times proudly reported that “the display of Flanders poppies was not equalled by any city in the British isles”. 

Commemorations on this scale were not unusual in the 1920s. Two years later some 40,000 Irishmen marched to the Phoenix Park for a service of commemoration beneath the imposing Wellington Monument. (British Pathe were present then, too, and you can watch their footage here.) It is said that some years as many as 500,000 poppies were distributed in Ireland and even if this figure is exaggerated, half as many would still be a number worthy of remark. Even as late as the 1930s, the war was still being remembered. Agreement on a site for the Irish National War Memorial Gardens was finally reached in 1929 and the gardens, at Islandbridge on the Liffey and designed by Edwin Lutyens, were not completed until, as it happens, 1939.

Which is just a means of noting that the history of the First World War  - and the history of its memory – is more complicated than nationalists – of any stripe – would have you believe.

The poppy and remembrance fell from favour in Ireland, elbowed aside by the rival story of the Easter Rising. A rebellion thought contemptible by most Dubliners became the national epic (in large part thanks to the British government’s obtuse reaction to the events of Easter 1916, a reaction that remains obtuse even if considered within the context of the First World War). But we can see more clearly now even if, paradoxically, also more darkly. This is Ireland, after all.

The commemoration – and, yes, the celebration, – of the Rising’s own centenary will be very different from the celebrations that marked its 50th anniversary in 1966. Forty years of revisionist Irish history has seen to that. Sometimes, these days, you even wonder if Irish history has developed to the stage that the revisionists now need a spot of revising themselves.

But, twenty years ago now, I remember President Mary Robinson attending a service of remembrance commemorating the (southern) Irish volunteers who sailed for France and Flanders. She wore a poppy too, something then almost only available from the British Embassy. And I remember, as well, the controversy that ensued. Newspaper columnists and radio phone-in programmes argued about Robinson’s revisionist provocation. Was this appropriate? Was it seemly? Was it even properly Irish?

The revisionists won. Five years later Robinson’s successor, Mary McAleese was joined by Queen Elizabeth at the unveiling of a new Flanders monument to the Irish fallen. The Irish volunteers, dead and surviving alike, were being written back into Irish history, the beneficiaries of what Professor Roy Foster has called “a more relaxed and inclusive definition of Irishness”.

John Redmond had called for Irishmen to serve “wherever the firing line extends” and thousands, north and south, rallied to the call. A majority, though only a slight one, of them were catholic though this, in truth, reflected economic opportunity as well as martial enthusiasm. Nevertheless, many of them thought they were fighting for Redmond and Home Rule and Irish enlistment rates before 1916, amongst non-agricultural workers, were nearly as enthusiastic as those pertaining in other parts of the British Isles.

That enthusiasm was not restricted to Unionists. In 1919 Joe Devlin, the nationalist MP for West Belfast, declared that the 16th Irish Division’s dead “died not as cowards died, but as soldiers of freedom, with their faces toward the fire, and in the belief that their life-blood was poured out in defence of liberty for the world”. If England’s difficulty was, for some, Ireland’s opportunity there remained many others who saw the struggle for Ireland as a small part of a wider struggle to establish the rights of all small nations. Fighting for Belgium or for Serbia was a proxy for fighting for Ireland.

Perhaps that seems quaint now. The Irish soldiers were not to know what would await them in France. Nor could they foresee how their service overseas would be countermanded by events at home. Nevertheless, when we remember the First World War at all and especially when we consider plans for commemorating its centenary, we might remember that the war was, and is, about rather more than the slaughter of the Somme.

Even when those commemorations are confined to the experiences of the peoples of these islands we might be reminded that they are more complicated than the Ladybird or Blackadder school of history would have you imagine. Irish motives varied. There were some, such as Emmot Dalton, who saw no contradiction between fighting for the British against the Germans and for the IRA against the British. That is part of the story too.

Most of all, however, the remarkably history – and historiography – surrounding the Irish First World War experience is a reminder of how the story of the relationships between the peoples of these islands is a complicated and nuanced one that is ill-served by a simplistic reductionism that splits folk into camps labelled Good and Bad. It is a history that contains multitudes and, being such a matter of nuance, one that is liable to easy misinterpretation. But that it might be so misinterpreted is no reason for failing to make an attempt towards recalling it as it was lived and understood at the time.

No-one celebrates the First World War. How could you? But remembering it, in all its complexity, is one way of helping to understand who we are and how we came to be who we are, wherever we happen to be.

Tags: British history, british politics, First World War, History, Home Rule, Ireland, Irish history, John Redmond, Somme