Alex Massie Alex Massie

When 50,000 Irishmen gathered to commemorate the First World War

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.

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