Ireland reconsiders how it honors WWI veterans

DUBLIN, Ireland ― A small ceremony in a rainy Dublin cemetery this week marked a significant step in Ireland’s improving relations with its larger neighbor, Great Britain.

A headstone was unveiled on Wednesday in the presence of British and Irish officials to a homeless Dubliner called Martin Carr, who died in 1916 from wounds when fighting for the British Army in the First World War. Before now his resting place in Glasnevin Cemetery was simply known as UG (unknown grave) 481/2.

The ceremony was an attempt to come to terms with the totality of Irish history.

Until recently Ireland gave scant recognition to the 50,000 Irishmen and women who died in World War I in British military uniforms.

On Armistice Day every November, British people wear an artificial red poppy to remember the First World War dead, but in Ireland wearing the poppy is often seen as expressing British rather than Irish nationalist sympathies.

However, a taboo on wearing the poppy in public may be weakening somewhat in the improving atmosphere between the two countries following the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Given the bitterness of the struggle for Irish independence from Britain, there was traditionally a “reluctance” in Ireland to commemorate those who fell in the British forces, said John Green of Glasnevin Trust, which erected the headstone for Carr and three other fallen Irish soldiers in different parts of the vast cemetery.

They plan to erect 90 such headstones before the end of the year to servicemen and women buried in paupers' graves in different parts of the cemetery.

Glasnevin is a sacred site for Irish nationalists, and the honoring of British war dead there is a sensitive issue.

Many noted patriots are among the 1.5 million people interred in Glasnevin since it was established in 1832 for the purpose of burying "people of all religions and none."

The remains of Daniel O’Connell, the great champion of Irish Catholic rights, lie in a crypt at the base of a 150-foot round tower.

Nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, rebel commander Michael Collins and former president Eamon de Valera are all buried in Glasnevin.

“When a cenotaph was erected here many years ago to commemorate the Irish war dead, some of the names provided by relatives were different from the names on the gravestones,” said Green, a 50-year-old accountant who chairs Glasnevin Trust, which operates the cemetery. “In some cases this was because volunteers enlisted under different names, but sometimes the family didn’t want to he identified as having a relative in the British Army.”

Green said he hoped that the situation of Irish volunteers killed in the war would now be resolved after almost a century.

“We don’t judge and we don’t care,” he said. “We want it to be a national cemetery again.”

Among those at the unveiling of gravestones to Martin Carr was Martin Mansergh from the majority Fianna Fail party.

He laid a wreath on behalf of the Irish government, made not of poppies, but of laurels, a compromise decision attributed to Prime Minister Brian Cowen.

Still it was a significant gesture from a party whose origins lie in the fight against Britain in the 1918-1921 War of Independence.

The sacrifice of those who died in Europe, said Mansergh at the ceremony, “should not be left out of the nation’s consciousness.”

Several individuals in Ireland have campaigned for years to change attitudes to the Irish war dead, from right-wing newspaper columnist Kevin Myers to Irish President Mary McAleese.
In 1998, McAleese and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth came together in Normandy for the opening of a 110-foot replica of an Irish round tower to commemorate the Irish war dead.

In her speech McAleese said, “Those whom we commemorate here were doubly tragic. They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. Their memory too fell victim to a war for independence at home in Ireland.”