Whether you agree with wearing a poppy or not, all Irish people who fought between 1914 and 1918 deserve to be remembered. Since the 1990s and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, the Irish nationalists who went to fight for the British army in the Great War have re-entered the public’s historical consciousness. However, we are still slow to recognise the role that Ulster unionists played in the war.
The 1916 Easter Rising is a central event in modern Irish history, and is particularly significant in the development of Irish nationalism. Equally, the massive losses suffered by the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 were a formative event in the development of Ulster unionism. 1916 is a crucial year in history for both communities on the island of Ireland. Loyalties were consolidated and identities were crystallised in the GPO in Dublin and in the trenches at the Somme. While considerable differences existed between the two communities before 1916, the events of that year polarised them. Both nationalists and unionists would look back on the events of 1916 as moments of great sacrifice which were endured to assert the rights of their respective communities.
As Professor Keith Jeffery has convincingly argued, the First World War was the single most significant event of the Irish experience of the twentieth century. 210,000 catholic and protestant men from the island of Ireland enlisted in the British Army, 50,000 of whom were killed. Despite this, there persisted what historian F.X. Martin referred to as a ‘collective amnesia’ regarding these events in the Republic. Historical research, public discourse and political commemoration focused on the military events which happened at home during this time. The 1916 Easter Rising was regarded as more important than the experiences of Irishmen who fought in the British army on the continent between 1914 and 1918. About 2,000 rebels took part in the insurrection against British rule, while up to 105,000 Irish nationalists were fighting for Britain on the continent.
In the more inclusive atmosphere of the 1990s, fostered by the Peace Process, historians began to examine the role Irishmen played during the First World War. One fascinating aspect of the war was what it meant to the different confessional communities on the island. Nationalists were encouraged to enlist so that Home Rule would be implemented upon their return, while unionists joined up to prevent the implementation of Home Rule. There was also a new found appreciation of the difficulties faced by Irish nationalists returning home to a country where an armed rebellion against the British had taken place while they had been in Europe fighting for the King. This more inclusive analysis of the 1914-1918 period has deepened our understanding of the complexities of life and loyalties in Ireland at that time.
However, in the Republic, there is still a gap in the public understanding of the events of the period. The Ulster unionist experience of the Great War needs to be further explored and this is particularly pertinent as we approach the 100th anniversary of 1916. Less than three months after the Rising in Dublin, 5,500 men of the 36th (Ulster) Division were either killed, wounded or declared missing in the first two days of fighting at the Battle of the Somme. The 36th was drawn from the Ulster Volunteer Force, established in 1912 to prevent the imposition of Home Rule in Ireland. The wartime contribution and sacrifices made by Ulster unionists left an indelible mark upon the psyche of that community. Murals of the Somme can still be seen on Belfast gables and the battle is commemorated every year. If we are to fully grasp the dynamics and complexities of this period, it is essential that the Ulster unionist experience of the war be further explored and remembered.
The first stages of the Peace Process allowed for a reinterpretation of recent Irish history, resulting in a new found appreciation of the role played by Irishmen in British uniform during the First World War. But the role of Ulster unionists, their motivations for enlisting, the sacrifices they made and their commemoration of the war are aspects of the Irish experience are unknown in the south. While the 1990s provided the impetus for the exploration of the forgotten aspects of Ireland’s wartime past, this decade of centenary commemorations is the perfect opportunity to explore the Unionist experiences of the war. With the 100th year anniversary of 1916 approaching, there needs to be a greater awareness of the sacrifices made by those at the Somme. Just as the Rising was a formative event in the history of Irish nationalism, the Somme is equally important in the development of Irish unionism. A more comprehensive historical understanding of the divisive year of 1916 can foster empathy between the two communities on the island. This is critical for the development of the Peace Process.
A better understanding of the formative events in the histories of both nationalist and unionist communities is required if the Peace Process is to continue. 1916 is the fulcrum around which ideas of loyalty and badges of identity have been based. In this decade of commemorations, and as we approach the 100th year anniversary of 1916, a more rounded assessment of this period of Irish history is needed. In order to achieve this, we must – in the words of playwright Frank McGuinness – ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.’