Thou­sands of Ir­ish fam­ily his­to­ries are haunted by the first World War

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Diar­maid Fer­riter

Those who fought be­longed to the ‘gen­er­a­tion of 1914’ and were guided by many dif­fer­ent lights; the great tragedy is that so many of those lights and the lives car­ry­ing them were ex­tin­guished, made all the more ru­inous by the fact that it was op­ti­mism that pro­pelled so many of them

Agiant sol­dier cur­rently in­hab­its St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, and well he might, given that this week­end marks the cen­te­nary of the Armistice that brought the hideous First World War to an end. The Haunting

Sol­dier, a 6m-high sculp­ture cre­ated and de­signed by Mar­tin Gal­bavy and Chris Han­nam, is at­tract­ing much in­ter­est, silent re­flec­tion, ap­pre­ci­a­tion and, no doubt, some re­sent­ment at those who still baulk at the no­tion of that war as “our” war.

Thou­sands of Ir­ish fam­ily his­to­ries are haunted by the war and it con­tin­ues to pro­voke strong sen­ti­ment be­cause of its hor­ren­dous scale and the ways it is memo­ri­alised, but there is also a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion now that the mem­ory and sense of it is ill-served by the re­duc­tion of a mul­ti­tude of per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences into neat parcels of af­fil­i­a­tion or mo­ti­va­tion.

A com­mon nar­ra­tive is that com­mem­o­ra­tion of the war was al­lowed to breathe in Ire­land only as part of an is­land-wide “shared his­tory” rubric fa­cil­i­tated by the peace process of the last 20 years. But it was never as sim­ple as that and some of the cur­rents that were ev­i­dent in ear­lier com­men­tary on com­mem­o­ra­tion in South­ern Ire­land were sub­se­quently mis­rep­re­sented. Many na­tion­al­ists in the 1920s, for ex­am­ple, did not ob­ject to re­mem­brance but what they re­garded as its hi­jack­ing. In 1927, lead­ing fig­ures in the new Fianna Fáil party spoke at a protest at Col­lege Green in Dublin to ob­ject to what Seán Le­mass re­ferred to as re­mem­brance gath­er­ings that “were utilised by a small sec­tion to dis­play im­pe­ri­al­is­tic sen­ti­ments”.

Le­mass did not take is­sue with war re­mem­brance but with the dis­play of the Union Jack in the fledg­ling Free State and he specif­i­cally called on “na­tion­al­ist ex-ser­vice­men” to en­sure that re­mem­brance “was not used to in­sult peo­ple”. He had no ob­jec­tion “to any sec­tion of the peo­ple hon­our­ing their dead”. What he did not men­tion was that two of his cousins, Herbert and Ed­win Le­mass, had fought with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Herbert had been killed at the Bat­tle of the Somme in 1916, a few months af­ter the young Seán had fought in the GPO dur­ing the Easter Ris­ing.

‘Mem­ory of com­rades’

Éa­mon de Valera also as­serted at the 1927 meet­ing that “noth­ing was more nat­u­ral than that men should seek to com­mem­o­rate the mem­ory of com­rades who fought side by side in bat­tle” in­clud­ing the Ir­ish na­tion­al­ists who had fought for what they be­lieved was the fur­ther­ing of their own coun­try’s lib­er­a­tion.

Those who fought be­longed to the “gen­er­a­tion of 1914” and were guided by many dif­fer­ent lights; the great tragedy is that so many of those lights and the lives car­ry­ing them were ex­tin­guished, made all the more ru­inous by the fact that it was op­ti­mism that pro­pelled so many of them.

The cor­re­spon­dence be­tween two broth­ers, Michael and John Moyni­han from a prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal fam­ily in Tralee, has been closely ex­am­ined by his­to­rian Deirdre McMa­hon, who sees their cor­re­spon­dence as re­flect­ing an im­pa­tience with what they re­garded as the weak­ness and deca­dence of an older gen­er­a­tion and the idea that they had been born into a world “lack­ing en­ergy and fi­bre” which had led to in­ter­na­tional cri­sis.

As McMa­hon points out, this not only prompted in­ter­gen­er­a­tional ten­sion but also a sense of “dis­con­ti­nu­ity and a ten­dency to­wards ex­tremes: op­ti­mism, dog­ma­tism and, omi­nously, the grow­ing ap­peal of war as cathar­sis, as a form of na­tional re­gen­er­a­tion and re­newal”.

The older brother Michael, a well-ed­u­cated civil ser­vant, joined the Civil Ser­vice Ri­fles in March 1914 and was killed in June 1918, five months be­fore the Armistice. Michael was a rest­less soul and deep thinker who as a young man sug­gested “heaven must be in­suf­fer­ably bor­ing. Per­fec­tion means sim­plic­ity and sim­plic­ity means dull­ness.” Like so many sol­diers, Michael had spared his fam­ily the squalid, bloody de­tails of trench war­fare. Be­fore his de­par­ture for the front, John wrote to him: “I have an im­pres­sion that you are not the sort of per­son to die young.” But he was, as were al­most 200 men from Tralee.

Salve his con­science

Who knows what con­tri­bu­tion he and they would have made to post­war Ire­land? John Moyni­han and an­other brother, Mau­rice, went on to have dis­tin­guished ca­reers as pub­lic ser­vants, work­ing with, among oth­ers, Seán Le­mass, who in 1966 came back to the sub­ject of Ir­ish ser­vice in the British army from 1914-1918 and sought, per­haps, to salve his con­science: “In later years it was com­mon – and I also was guilty in this re­spect – to ques­tion the mo­tives of those men who joined the new British armies formed at the out­break of war, but it must, in their hon­our and in fair­ness to their mem­ory, be said that they were mo­ti­vated by the high­est pur­pose.”

A cen­tury on, those gaz­ing at Dublin’s tem­po­rary “haunting solider” can reach their own con­clu­sions about whose war it was and what mo­ti­vated those who were part of it.


Vet­er­ans view The Haunting Sol­dier ,a six-me­tre high sculp­ture de­pict­ing a weary first World War sol­dier, on dis­play in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, af­ter its un­veil­ing to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the end­ing of the war.

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