Remembering to Forget

An essay on Ireland & WW1 by Michael Carley

Michael Carley

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Bagenalstown, County Carlow, is a town of about two and half thousand people. Until the early sixties the main employer, and the economic strength of the town, was the Brown and Crosthwaite flour mill. During the First World War, there was no conscription in Ireland, but many Irish men did enlist in the British Army. In Bagenalstown, Brown and Crosthwaite promised to re-engage any of their men who joined up; their details were recorded in a small notebook, now in the possession of my family. 

One of the men from Bagenalstown who enlisted, in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was my great-grandfather John Monaghan. If the phrase had been in use at the time, he might be said to have had a ‘good war’: he served in France and the Dardanelles, but came home intact with more than the usual number of medals. Returning from the pub one night, some years later, he faced down a group of local IRA men who asked if he felt as brave as he did when he had a trench to hide in. He replied that the Germans had the decency to give a man a fighting chance, and walked on unmolested. 

Around the same time as John Monaghan enlisted, his neighbour Sylvester Cummins, a joiner, also joined the Dublin Fusiliers. He returned from the war intact physically, though not mentally. His wife managed to contain his shell shock, or PTSD, until 1935, when she died of meningitis. Five months later Cummins killed himself; cause of death, “suicide by gas poisoning”. 

Monaghan and Cummins were two of about two hundred thousand Irish men who fought for Britain in the First World War. Some, like Tom Barry, put their experience to use in the nascent IRA. Others, like their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom, returned to civilian life and their pre-war trades. Their regiment, the Dublin Fusiliers, like a number of other Irish regiments, was disbanded at independence, and its colours were laid up at Windsor. Its reputation survived in popular memory, and it entered the pantheon alongside Master MacGrath, and Father Murphy, when somebody wrote a periodically updated song. The version in print seems, given its reference to “UN warriors”, to have been devised in the early sixties. 

In 1966, The Dubliners released their album Finnegan Wakes, recorded in concert at the Gate Theatre Dublin. As well as a classic banjo-and-geansaı version of The Dublin Fusiliers on the original LP, the CD reissue includes a Ronnie Drew shaggy dog story about two fusiliers, Paddy and Jem, getting the better of Gunther in the trench opposite. 

Paddy and Jem could have been in the Dockers’ Company, workers black-listed after the 1913 Lockout who enlisted en masse and formed part of the regular army in France, while Kitchener’s volunteer army was in training. As Padraig Yeates describes, they were wiped out near Ypres in April 1915, advancing “in faultless order” to within a hundred yards of the village of Saint-Julien, before the German machine guns fired. The few who crawled back to their line “gave ‘three cheers for Jim Larkin,’ just as if they were once more inside Liberty Hall.” One of the blacklisted workers would have been Fitz, the hero of Strumpet City, the “great Irish novel”, published in 1969, and televised by RT´E in 1980. The final scene of both book and television series shows Fitz on the troop ship leaving Dublin Bay:

"...she would have the allowance. The children would eat. The rent would be paid. In the Royal Army Service Corps he would learn to be a motor mechanic or a car driver. He would be sure of a job when he came back."

If Fitz did come back, he returned to a city changed by the Easter Rising, the conscription crisis and the beginning of the War of Independence. Dublin had been taken from him by the Lockout, and from Roddy Doyle’s Henry Smart when James Connolly was executed. Whichever flag flew over Dublin, capital was firmly in control. Official memory of the Irish dead was confined to Remembrance Sunday commemorations.


Recently, Sylvester Cummins’ great-granddaughter, Elaine Byrne, has published two articles on her great-grandfather and on the “collective national amnesia” which excluded Irish soldiers in British service from popular and official memory, and has examined the ambiguities and divided loyalties in the men who volunteered. She has found Cummins’ enlistment papers, which reveal a minor act of resistance on his part: he misspelt his signature, giving his first name as ‘Silvester’, “a small thing, but [Byrne] noticed it, and 100 years later that dormant nationalism still matters somehow.” That ambiguous relationship to the country to which he was swearing allegiance is the key to an interesting story, as is the great collective act of Irish forgetting. Byrne tells how the First World War was not taught in Irish schools, and of the official resistance to building the National War Memorial Gardens. 

During a 1927 Dail debate on building a memorial in Merrion Square, opposite government buildings, Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice and notorious military strong man, said “Let there be a war memorial. That is one thing, but a war memorial in Merrion Square, a public park, presumably with the railings gone and leading up to the entrance of Government Buildings, is another thing.” As Byrne notes, O’Higgins “was adamant that any memorial for those that had died in the war, including his own brother, would be out of sight and therefore out of mind.” As she then notes:

"It was not until 1988 that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, 5km from parliament on the outskirts of Dublin, were formally dedicated and opened to the public. The Queen’s visit to the Islandbridge memorial in 2011 was the first time that I became aware it existed."

The conscious forgetting of Irish sacrifice in the Great War has distorted, and continues to skew, our sense of twentieth-century Ireland, and of our place in a Europe shaped by that conflict. A small step towards righting that injustice was President Higgins’ visit to view the colours of the disbanded Irish regiments at Windsor Castle. In Byrne’s words:

"The solitary act of standing before the colours will help Ireland to purposely remember what was deliberately forgotten."


A neat story with a pretty moral, but largely wrong. In her Irish Independent article, Byrne reproduces an image of her great-grandfather’s enlistment papers. His name is indeed spelt ‘Silvester’ throughout, with the exception of his signature, which is spelt ‘Sylvester’. Cummins signed his own name correctly (who wouldn't?), but the officer taking his details made the mistake in filling in the form. The error in the signature is indeed a “small thing” to notice, because the error is not there at all. 

The story of the Islandbridge gardens is far more interesting than a decision by a new state to bury the memory of those who fought for its former imperial master. Planning for the memorial began in 1919, with a committee raising funds and looking for a site. The Dail debate in 1927 came about on foot of a resolution from the Seanad requesting the establishment of a committee to consider the enabling legislation required “to convey and transfer to the Trustees of the Irish National War Memorial Trust the ground within Merrion Square in the City of Dublin.” The debate in which O’Higgins op- posed the use of Merrion Square for the memorial seems to have been civil, and O’Higgins clarified his views, “deprecat[ing] profoundly the mentality of either side that would like to make of the 11th November a Twelfth of July,” but wishing that the impression not be given that the “roots from which this State has sprung” lay in the Great War. He suggested that Fitzwilliam Park, five minutes walk away, or Parnell Square be used instead. 

Parnell Square is now the site of the Garden of Remembrance, the memorial to the Irish who died for Ireland. With the memorial gardens unfinished, Remembrance Sunday commemorations were held in the Phoenix Park and were well attended for many years, as period newsreels show. Yeates notes that in 1939 forty thousand people assembled for the minute’s silence; during the Second World War, as in Britain, restrictions were imposed on commemorations, and ceremonies were only discontinued at the end of the sixties as a response to events in Northern Ireland. In the end, the Islandbridge site was chosen, about as far from the Irish parliament as the far side of Hyde Park is from the Palace of Westminster. Construction went on during the thirties with part of the funding being supplied by the De Valera government. The opening was to have taken place in 1939 but was cancelled because there was a war on. 

After that war, the gardens were little used and did indeed fall into disrepair, until a campaign led by Kevin Myers in the Irish Times brought them to public notice in the eighties. The Office of Public Works, an arm of the Irish state, restored the gardens which were then dedicated in 1988 while Charles Haughey was Taoiseach. They have been used since then for official functions, including a 2006 commemoration of the Battle of the Somme attended by President McAleese, the Taoiseach, and a band from the Irish Army.


The story of remembrance seems to be one of forgetting the memories. Byrne says that she was not aware of the Islandbridge gardens until 2011; she is clearly also unaware of the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, a monument in the form of a round tower, formally unveiled by President McAleese, Queen Elizabeth, and King Albert of Belgium, on the eightieth anniversary of the armistice. 

The accepted narrative now seems to be one of wilful official forgetfulness. On RTE’s site dedicated to its archive of First World War material, Myles Dungan claims that the “rapidly developing nationalist narrative” of 1925 led to Yeats rejecting The Silver Tassie for the Abbey because of its inclusion of the “inconvenient truth of working class Irish participation” in the war. In his letter of rejection, Yeats wrote to O’Casey that the play was “all too abstract, ..., an interesting technical experiment, but it is too long for the material”. It was not performed in Ireland until 1935, at the Abbey, during the first De Valera government, and has seen little action since. 

There is a continuous memory of the First World War running through the Remembrance Sundays of the twenties and thirties, the Dail debates on the Islandbridge gardens, their construction in the thirties, the presence of the Dublin Fusiliers in the songs of one of Ireland’s most popular groups in the sixties, the dedication of the memorial gardens in the eighties, the unveiling of the Messines monument in the nineties. That narrative is implicit in fiction and drama: Strumpet City, Troubles, the work of Sebastian Barry. Whatever Ireland, official or popular, thought of the war, it did not forget it. 

So why is this narrative of ‘amnesia’ happening, and why now? Byrne could have written about her great-grandfather without making claims which do not stand up to scrutiny. Her articles have been published in a national and an international newspaper, and have been well received. They would have been just as well received without the clangers: many readers, at least of the Guardian article, probably did not notice them, and have been left with a misleading impression of Ireland’s memory of the First World War. The amnesia story seems to feed, and feed from, a sense of grievance that Ireland is not part of an imperial discourse. Other parts of the British Empire date part of their coming of national age to the war: Australia, famously, at Gallipoli, and Canada at Vimy Ridge. Ireland, not being populated by descendants of white settlers, had the ill manners to leave the empire before an offer was made, and came of age in another disastrous military adventure, which was redeemed only by government ineptitude. In recent decades, the primary official use of Irish death in the war has been the reconciliation of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in the common name of cannon fodder, which accounts for the clumsy name of the memorial at Messines. 

The prevailing attitude is a combination of apology for independence— “but we were at the Somme!”—and reproach—“why did you abandon us to these goms who run the place now?” Someone in Ireland wants to be like a certain version of Australia, or Canada, or Britain, a nation bonded by war and forged in the furnace of martial cliché. The idea of being a colony which freed itself, and became an example which other colonies consciously used, does not seem to have occurred to anyone. In Declan Kiberd’s words:

"Like it or not, the Irish Renaissance was world-historical in its day. It made soldiers in the trenches of Europe feel mutinous. It speeded the decline of deference to old-fashioned imperial philosophies. It gave rise to some masterworks of modernism—but it also embodied that militarism which frequently snuffed radical modernist ideas out, not just in Dublin or London or Berlin but, even more crucially, in the wider postcolonial world."

After being in on the birth of modernism, Ireland is now in a post-modern bind of arguing about the narrative of its stories of memory.

Another way of telling the story of Irish soldiers after 1914 would start with the Lockout, the story of a working class struggling against local capital; its sacrifice to the Moloch of world capital; the first successful anti-colonial struggle; resistance to conscription; the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India. That story might run in parallel with the work of Yeats, during his most explicitly political period; Joyce, who saw in the war on the periphery of another doomed empire; Beckett, too young for that war, but whose close friend Thomas MacGreevy had served in it. 

So far, Ireland’s decade of centenaries has included a ban on a Lockout float in the Dublin Saint Patrick’s Day parade, and reports that while the British royal family will be invited to the 1916 commemorations, relatives of the rebels will not be. Connolly, always far-sighted, saw this coming: “the worship of the past could become a tactic to reconcile people to the mediocrity of the present”. The insistence that Irish soldiers were forgotten and must be remembered seems without nuance, a desire to mindlessly appropriate the symbols of military glory without consideration of what lies behind them, or how they might be used or interpreted. 

Ireland has a chance to show itself part of a world greater than its parochial concerns. The talk of ‘amnesia’ does the Irishmen who fought in the war no service: they were never forgotten, but their ‘sacrifice’ is being co-opted. In Britain, all bar the most jingoistic see the war as a squandering of lives for no great purpose; something in Ireland wants it to have meaning. Many Irishmen, if they thought of the enemy, must have agreed with Yeats’ Irish Airman and wondered whom they were defending, whom fighting, and why. 

A different story would situate Ireland in an empire, but as neither its victim nor its executioner. It would say to the immigrant from the former colonies of the same empire that, like theirs, our youth were sent to war in the uniform of the empire. It would look beyond the old empires of the European Union to those empires’ colonies and offer solidarity. It would pay its due to those who fought in uniform or out of it, and to those who refused to. In almost his last words, James Connolly said of his firing squad “I will say a prayer for all brave men who do their duty”. 

Ireland’s youth was led into the war by its own leaders, for imperial loyalty in the North, and a hope of Home Rule in the South. If the heirs of Redmond carry some residual guilt for his actions, they would do better to assuage it by remembering the dead honestly, not by denying actual remembrance to replace it with a constructed one.

[Image from the Irish WW1 recruitment poster 'Can you any longer resist the call?']

Work consulted

1. Elaine Byrne, The Guardian, 5 April 2014, ‘The forgotten Irish soldiers who fought for Britain in the first world war’, 

2. Elaine Byrne, Irish Independent, 8 April 2014, ‘Remembering my great- grandfather and the Irish heroes lost to history’, 

3. Padraig Yeates, A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914–1918, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 2011.

4. Padraig Yeates, Lockout: Dublin 1913, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 2000

5. Dail Eireann, Volume 19, 29 March, 1927: Private business, Merrion Square (Dublin) Bill, 1927. Seanad resolution. 

6. John Wyse Jackson & Hector McDonnell (eds), Ireland’s Other Poetry: Anonymous to Zozimus, Lilliput Press, 2007.

7. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld & Lois More Overbeck, The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929–1940, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

8. Remembrance Ireland, British Pathe