September 9, 2014 / 7:14 AM / in 3 years

Rehabilitation of WW1 veterans rekindles old conflicts in Ireland

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Defaced and deserted for decades, Dublin’s World War One memorial garden now marks the rehabilitation of at least 200,000 Irishmen who fought for Britain a century ago - a transformation that angers some.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth pauses after laying a wreath at the Irish War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge in Dublin, in this file photograph dated May 18, 2011. REUTERS/Maxwell's/pool

The dispute has come to a head as Ireland starts to celebrate some seminal centenaries, from the call by moderate nationalists to fight in the war in September 1914 to the anti-British uprising two years later.

Independent Ireland is on better terms with London than most could have foreseen in 1918.

A generation of shattered Irish men returned then to a mixture of indifference and hostility as their nation fought for independence, making tales of their sacrifice for Britain taboo for the rest of their lives.

But stories of their heroics, wretched suffering and an estimated 30,000 deaths flooded the Irish airwaves last month and memorial ceremonies featuring the president and prime minister have been enthusiastically covered by the media.

One former Irish prime minister went as far as to say that the wartime 1916 uprising against British rule - as revered as the Battle of Lexington in the United States - was “a mistake” and that Irish patriots should have supported Britain’s war.

Some say the recognition of the hellish sacrifices of a generation is long overdue in Ireland. Many signed up following a promise in September 1914 that support for the British war effort would be rewarded with self-rule for Ireland.

But in a country whose national anthem celebrates “serried ranks” lining up against “our Saxon foe”, equating their sacrifice with that of Ireland’s revolutionary heroes has proved controversial.

“It would be as ridiculous as the U.S. honoring settlers who fought with the Red Coats,” said Pat Walsh, an historian who has written several books on Ireland’s war experience and complains the media coverage is too uncritical of British war accounts.

“COMMON HISTORY”

Few are vocal in their opposition: around half a dozen people heckled as the president unveiled a memorial stone to World War One veterans just yards from the grave of Michael Collins, a military hero of 1916 and the war of independence that followed.

But broader unease has been reflected in letters and opinion pieces in national papers. A member of the junior coalition party Labour recently called for the post office to scrap stamps commemorating the nationalist leader who called on Irish men to join the British war effort.

Former premier John Bruton sparked criticism by saying the 1916 rising was a “completely unnecessary” detour into militant nationalism that could have been avoided.

Ireland, he said, should give equal time to commemorating John Redmond’s securing of a promise of Home Rule in September 1914, which led him to call for Irish people to join Britain’s war effort.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, de facto spokesman for the Irish Republican Army during the armed struggle in Northern Ireland, accused Bruton of “denigrating” Irish patriots.

The Home Rule promise was empty and World War One was “a war of empires ruled by privileged elites,” said Adams, now an opposition leader with ambitions to enter government in an election due by early 2016.

But among the broader population, many are curious about heroic stories of their countrymen that were conspicuously absent from school history books.

“The attitude of Irish people to the war has definitely changed a lot,” said the grounds supervisor at the Deansgrange cemetery in south Dublin, who gives weekly tours to dozens of people of graves restored to add World War service details.

“That simply never would have been allowed before,” he said. “That these men had fought for the army our country was now fighting against just didn’t fit with the way things were.”

Wearing that war’s ultimate commemoration symbol, the poppy, remains near taboo due to its associations with the British army in Northern Ireland.

But many welcomed the gesture of reconciliation when Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath of poppies at the memorial garden on the banks of the River Liffey during her historic visit in 2011, the first by a British head of state since independence.

“We now have peace on this island. British soldiers aren’t shooting Irish people and Irish people aren’t shooting British soldiers,” said Robert Ballagh, an Irish artist who documented the “gothic neglect” of the site during the violent 1980s.

“That does help to remove tensions and allow people to look at issues where they share a common history.”

Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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