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Involving nationalists in remembrance is seen as progress... in fact it is a slow return to the ceremonies of 50 years ago

The presence of the Irish ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall, at yesterday's Remembrance ceremony in Whitehall, marks another advance in the relationship between the Republic and Britain.

At the same time, Enda Kenny was laying a wreath in Enniskillen. This was the third time the Taoiseach has attended the Enniskillen ceremony to lay a wreath; his first visit marked the 25th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing.

Irish Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Charlie Flanagan was in Belfast, and Tanaiste Joan Burton attended the annual service of Remembrance in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

In May, the Irish ambassador to Italy, Bobby McDonagh, attended ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the final battle for Monte Cassino, one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War and one in which Irishmen played a significant role.

We are told that all this shows that not only are relations between the two states improving, but that the 'national amnesia' about the dead of 1914-18 in the Republic is disappearing. We are also told that Catholics in Northern Ireland can now feel more comfortable with the rites of Remembrance Sunday.

But is this truly the case?

Was there really a national amnesia about the First World War? Is the presence of nationalist politicians at services on this side of the border a sign that Catholics are more comfortable?

Let's look at the supposed 'national amnesia' first.

The term suggests that those in the Republic removed from their consciousness all memory of those who served in British and Allied uniforms in the Great War. Not so.

The first time Armistice Day was marked in Dublin after that war was in 1924, the first year of peace in Ireland. With the War of Independence and the Civil War over, the British Legion felt that the end of the Great War could be marked.

They could hardly have anticipated the numbers who turned out. Some 20,000 ex-servicemen observed the two-minute silence at College Green. A crowd numbered at around 50,000 attended to take part in the ceremony, and remember dead loved ones.

The apparatus of the new state may have been absent. The hearts of people who had suffered loss were not.

Interestingly, the new government instructed its representatives to attend Armistice ceremonies in Britain and elsewhere, but forbade its members from doing so in Ireland.

Collections for the Poppy Appeal in Dublin exceeded those for Belfast in the inter-war years.

Poppies were first sold in Dublin in 1921 (they inspired members of Cumann na mBan to launch the Easter lily). In 1928, the sum raised from poppy sales in Dublin was £4,028 and, in spite of the depression, it continued to exceed £3,000 each year until 1933.

Year after year people in the Republic remembered their loved ones from two world wars. Until 1969 the Remembrance Sunday parade in Limerick was the largest in Ireland. For many years it had been organised by the legendary ex-RSM Ring of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. And until 1969 large numbers of Catholic ex-servicemen took part in parades across Northern Ireland.

I have very strong memories of Remembrance Sundays in the 1950s and early-1960s in Derry. As schoolboy, my brother and I were numbered in the crowds watching the parade and the Service of Remembrance in the Diamond because our father, JJ Doherty, an old soldier, was present.

Like many of his fellow Catholic ex-service comrades, JJ Doherty attended Mass before going on parade. Nothing unusual in that, you may think, but they were wearing their medals and their poppies.

Perhaps I should also mention where we lived. Tremone Gardens, long since gone, was almost at the top of Creggan. Of the street's 20 houses, 10 of the fathers were ex-servicemen and war veterans; two of the others were deserters from the Irish Army who hadn't joined the UK forces.

Coming home from Remembrance Sunday parades usually involved a long wait for a bus, often in biting cold at the bottom of Waterloo Street. Not because a Sunday schedule was operating but because there were so many passengers that extra buses had to be laid on.

And Derry was not unique. I understand that similar scenes could be witnessed across Northern Ireland.

These men and their comrades saw themselves not as Catholics or Protestants, nationalists or unionists, but as former servicemen who had bonded in common cause to fight for what they believed was right.

My father would have been happy to see Ireland's ambassador at the Cenotaph yesterday, but he would also have been saddened that it has taken so long to make this much progress.

In Northern Ireland, I consider that we are only crawling back to the position of half a century ago; I only hope it doesn't take another 50 years to get there. Those who died deserve much better.

  • Richard Doherty is a military historian and author who has written more than 20 books on British and Irish military history

Belfast Telegraph