In 1994, as a young official, I helped organise the State’s first full National Commemoration Ceremony, which was held in Islandbridge, Dublin and finally acknowledged the conveniently forgotten Irish involvement in the two World Wars. It was a ground breaking event, an idea of then Taoiseach John Bruton which brought together for the first time in any such event, a Unionist and Sinn Fein politician – a harbinger of the larger peace process that was to come.

The ceremony, which has developed into a broader event, was impactful then because it was so rare, and brief. It is the same with the annual 1916 commemoration at the GPO and indeed the one at Arbour Hill, ceremonies that were always more austere and low key than celebratory. ‘Less is more’, as they say. But now that spirit of modest commemoration is in danger of being lost with the desire to ramp up the variety and level of remembrance.

We are presently, for the month of November, in the midst of an intense period of commemoration for the First and Second World wars, but we are also facing what could also an intense few years of such commemoration, with the centenary next year of the outbreak of war in 1914, and commemorations of every year of the war after that. More people than ever are wearing poppies in the UK, especially on TV, and are frowned on if they don’t, even if they are Northern Irish soccer players like James McClean who definitely do not share this ‘political tradition.’ ITV newsreader Charlene White has been subjected to online racist abuse for not wearing a poppy, even though she strongly supports the armed services in private. Is it all getting too much?

Of course, it is important that we remember the war dead, on all sides, but with certain elements trying to outdo each other in commemorative piety, there is now a danger that this phenomenon is becoming excessive, overly sentimental, and just divisive – not least in this country. The commemorations also tend to glorify war and conflict in an age when we, of all generations, know the reality of its misery and suffering. The Syrian conflict is barbaric, but were the trenches any better?

Bomber Command

The commemorative mania is particularly acute in the UK, notably under a Tory Government seeking to protect itself from an electoral threat from the likes of the right wing UKIP. Thus, we have yet more World War memorials, such as a recent huge one to RAF Bomber Command in London (pictured above) and a totally insensitive statue to ‘Bomber’ Harris who rained death on German cities and civilians.

For this is the other important point: the commemorative obsession is in contrast to other European countries who, while paying their appropriate respects, are trying to move forward and project a future positive view of Europe, and a united Europe. The UK’s World War nostalgia seems to wallow in a Eurosceptic present and a sepia-toned past. But we are possibly guilty of this ourselves, with an endless preoccupation about our violent past and the run up to the anniversary of 1916, already heralding a heavy schedule of memorials and commemoration.

And it’s not as if there aren’t not enough memorials and commemorations of our nationalist past already. Apparently, in 1950’s Ireland, the more depressed things got, the more patriotic memorials they put up to distract people.

But eager nationalists, it seems, can never have enough memorials, both here and in the UK. One of the pleasures of coming down the Dublin quays used to be to see the kids and adults playing football on the Croppies Acre green park in front of Collins Museum. That is until pious patriots insisted that actual replica graves slabs be laid across the green space as part of a ‘memorial park’ to the Croppy rebels of 1798, even though there are no traces of human remains. (The OPW has, incidentally, closed off the space, claiming, lamely that it’s being used by drug users.) And so now a wonderful recreational city space has been lost, all because the commemorators think it’s more important to honour the political past than the living present.


Croppies Acre, Dublin : It was nice as a children’s football field