6 November 2008 Edition
Cork mayor is wrong to celebrate British Army
By Fiona Kerins
Sinn Féin Cork City Councillor
On 8 November, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Brian Bermingham (Fine Gael), will hold a concert to commemorate those Corkmen who died fighting in the British Army in the First World War. This follows the decision last year by the then Lord Mayor, Councillor Donal Counihan, to wear a poppy while attending the annual Remembrance Day ceremony run by the British Legion.
At least 35,000 Irishmen died fighting in the British Army during the First World War. Many of them were from Cork. Sinn Féin does not suggest that this fact be airbrushed from history. It is important that we remember. But there is a difference between remembrance and celebration.
The Lord Mayor recently billed this concert “a night of nostalgia”. Nostalgia for what? Those Corkmen who marched off to war in 1914, believing it would all be over by Christmas, were in fact headed for the hell of the Western Front – where men stood knee-deep in water or were torn to pieces on barbed-wire; where rats gnawed on bloated corpses and shells churned the ground into mud. The Ireland they left behind was a colonial dependency in which the majority of people lived lives of abject poverty.
Irishmen who joined the British Army in 1914 did so for many reasons. Some joined in search of adventure. Others signed up for the pay, pressurised by unemployment and poverty at home. And there were many who listened to the leader of the Nationalist Party, John Redmond, and joined the army in the belief that a show of loyalty from Irishmen in Britain’s hour of need would ensure the granting of Home Rule.
The motives of such men were worthy. But they were proven wrong. Home Rule was placed on the statute book but postponed until after the war – and, meanwhile, the British prepared to grant the demand of Ulster Unionists to partition Ireland. By 1916, the army that many had joined in the belief it was fighting for the rights of small nations had shelled the city centre of Dublin into ruin, and executed the leaders of 1916.
The First World War was not a heroic struggle for the freedom of small nations: it was a conflict between imperial powers, in which rivalry between Britain and Germany over colonies and a naval arms race played a crucial role. The monarchs of three of the belligerent powers – Britain, Russia and Germany – were related, so the war could be described as a falling-out between cousins as a result of which millions of men and women died.
At the end of the war, the colonial empires of Britain and France reached their greatest extent as they incorporated territories formerly ruled by Turkey and Germany. And, of course, within months the British Army would be actively suppressing the democratically-elected government of Ireland – Dáil Eiréann – which proclaimed independence in January 1919.
Some of the Irishmen who joined the British Army in 1914 took the military skills they had learned and applied them in the IRA. One of them was Tom Barry. The volunteer soldiers who fought the British to a standstill over the next three years were indeed fighting for the freedom of small nations.
They took to the field with little training, few arms, and no logistical support beyond that offered them by a sympathetic population – and in the knowledge that if captured they faced brutal treatment and frequently execution. In spite of this, they forced the British to the negotiating table – and provided inspiration for other peoples fighting colonialism around the world, from India to Algeria.
We should remember all aspects of our history. But some parts of it we should celebrate and remember with pride – others we should recall as a tragedy and a warning. The efforts of the Irish Volunteers in 1916 and during the Tan War should inspire pride in Irish people today. Their ideals – set out in the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil – remain as relevant as ever. But the 35,000 deaths of Irishmen in the British Army were a tragic waste of life in somebody else’s war.
Whatever their motives for joining – and they were many and mixed – the reality is that they died in a futile conflict between rival empires which sowed the seeds of the Second World War only 20 years later.
At a time when many in our political establishment are itching to ditch Irish neutrality, there is surely a lesson for us here. Sinn Féin believes the Lord Mayor’s “night of nostalgia” concert - and the wearing of poppies and attendance at British Legion ceremonies by our civic dignitaries – is inappropriate. There are many ways to remember the past but this should not be one of them.