At London’s Cenotaph, 9 November 2014
I had the honour of representing Ireland at the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at London’s Cenotaph on the 9th of November, where I laid a laurel wreath ‘In Remembrance, on behalf of the Government of Ireland.'
This was the first time for Ireland to be represented at the Cenotaph since 1946. We had participated in this ceremony between 1922 and 1938 and again in 1945 and 1946. It was a solemn, moving ceremony during which wreaths were laid by, among others, Queen Elizabeth and members of her family, British political leaders and London-based Heads of Mission of Commonwealth countries.
It was, I think, fitting for Ireland to be represented at the Cenotaph on this, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It recognises the sacrifice of the many thousands of Irishmen who died during that terrible, tragic conflict. The official Irish death toll was 49,000. These victims of war were drawn from all parts of Ireland and from all political and religious creeds.
A majority of the 200,000 or so Irishmen who volunteered for service came from what could be called the Irish nationalist tradition. They were responding to calls from Irish Party leader, John Redmond, to his supporters to back the war effort in defence of values and interests shared by Ireland and Britain. I have spoken in recent months about two Irish writers, Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge, who died on the Western Front, and it is clear that both were passionate Irish nationalists fighting for what they viewed as Ireland’s cause. They and their fellow Irishmen deserve to be remembered, their sacrifice respected.
My participation at the Cenotaph was a natural extension of the presence on Remembrance Sunday of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in Enniskillen and of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, at the Cenotaph in Belfast. This is the third year running that our Government has been represented at the most senior level at Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Enniskillen and Belfast.
This public recognition of the extensive Irish involvement in World War 1 is part of a longer-term trend that goes back to 1998 when President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in Belgium. At that time, President McAleese spoke of the need to remember the past differently by honouring the sacrifices of those who died in World War 1 as well as those who gave their lives during our War of Independence. As the President said, ‘To each let us give his or her acknowledged place among our island’s cherished dead.’
Sixteen years later in July of this year, President Michael D. Higgins spoke about Ireland’s war dead at the dedication of a Commonwealth War Graves’ Commission Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. The President said it was important that ‘the First World War, and those whose lives it claimed, be not left as a blank space in Irish history’ and welcomed what he called ‘a more inclusive remembering at public level.’
This renewed Irish remembering of World War 1 has advanced significantly in recent years with a joint visit to the war cemeteries in Flanders by the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister in December 2013 and the presence of President Higgins in Belgium on the 4th of August this year for the centenary of the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war.
I have attended quite a number of First World War commemorative events this year and felt it was important to be there. I see no contradiction between the rightful commemoration of our own struggle for independence, which will take place in the coming years, especially in 2016, and remembering the Irish contribution to the war effort a century ago. The coincidence of these two sets of events merely serves to highlight the complexity of our national history. Complexity is not always easy to handle, but it is well worth the effort. A century on from the events being commemorated, we can now pay our respects to those Irish from that turbulent era who died in different causes, and without any requirement to rank their sacrifice. They lived and died in a different era, but their world and the sacrifices they made have helped shape the world in which we live.
I have been very gratified by the response to my participation at the Cenotaph. There have been quite a few heartfelt messages from people whose own family stories are connected with World War 1 and who were pleased to see this aspect of the overlapping history of Ireland and Britain receive official recognition. On social media, the response has also been hugely positive. One message I sent out on Twitter was forwarded more than 400 times and reached at least 70,000 users of that medium. It elicited many warm-hearted responses.
Our participation at the Cenotaph is also a reflection of the new warmth that now exists between Ireland and Britain brought about by the success of the Northern Ireland peace process and the historic exchange of State Visits, by Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and by President Higgins to Britain in April of this year.
As I bent down to lay the wreath at the Cenotaph I thought of all those young men who never came home from ‘the Green Fields of France.’ And I now recall some lines Francis Ledwidge wrote in the trenches of the Somme:
The hills of home are in my mind
And there I wander as I will.
He never saw those hills again.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London