Remembrance Day manages to divide and unite communities all over Ireland at the same time – due to its British origin and its focus on soldiers fighting for the English crown. While nationalists abhor Remembrance Day, loyalists attach an importance to the day second only to July 12th. And what was conceived as an all-inclusive day of remembrance for the dead of wars past became a blatant advertisement for the madness of the war present in Northern Ireland – in Enniskillen in 1987.
Remembrance Day – A Short History
The First World War (also known as the Great War) ended on the 11th hour or the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 – with an armistice. To remember the dead of this titanic struggle (that wiped out nearly a whole generation) two minutes of silence were henceforth observed on November 11th. Armistice Day was created in Britain.
When it became clear that the Great War was not the expected ” war to end all wars” and casualties from later wars needed to be remembered as well, Armistice Day was effectively scrapped. Instead the Sunday nearest to November 11th was declared to be the all-inclusive Remembrance Day. The central ceremony is held in London, with soldiers and veterans marching past the Cenotaph every year.
Red Poppies – The Symbol of Remembrance Day
Remembrance Day is forever connected to red poppies, worn on coats and jackets – which goes back to the battlefields in Western Europe on which the British fought during the First World War. When soldiers observed the millions of poppies in bloom they claimed that each represented a drop of blood shed by one of their own. This became part of the mythology of the war, much like the “Angels of Mons” and the Christmas truce of 1914. And what better symbol to pick to remember the immense bloodshed than the one already believed to represent blood?
“The green fields of France where the red poppies dance” where also immortalized by Irish group The Fureys and Davy Arthur – their version of the seminal anti-war-song by Eric Bogle became an all-time favorite in Ireland. A country that tends to consciously forget Remembrance Day in 26 of 32 counties …
Ireland Divided on Remembrance Day
At first glance Remembrance Day should be an Irish occasion too – thousands of Irishmen and -women fought and lost their lives in the armed forces of Britain. But these volunteers (there was no conscription in Ireland) were disowned. First by nationalists and then by successive Irish governments. They were perceived not as fighting against the German or Japanese threat in the world wars – their role was reduced in a rather simplistic way to “fighting for England”. And thus, by implication, against a sovereign Ireland. This being the same sovereign Ireland that has no law against joining foreign armies. But as the popular song goes, “it was better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-al-Bar”.
While most nationalists wouldn’t be seen dead at a Remembrance Day ceremony, unionists pounced upon the occasion with a vengeance. Even the iconography of Remembrance Day has been adopted for sectarian purposes.
The reasons for this are manifold and go beyond the remembrance of the war dead. By pointing out that the Ulster Division bled to death at the Somme in 1916 unionists rub in the image of nationalists fighting “on Germany’s side” in the Easter Rising. And by honoring the war dead unionists also send a subtle reminder to Westminster that a debt is owed.
Tensions were traditionally high around Remembrance Day in Northern Ireland.
The Remembrance Day Terror Attack in Enniskillen
On November 8th, 1987, people in Enniskillen (County Fermanagh) had just started to congregate at the town’s war memorial, when a massive explosion brought about the collapse of a building. Eleven people died – all but one civilians.
An “active service unit” of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) had planted the bomb to “disrupt” the Remembrance Day celebrations. They succeeded only too well – and the almost instantaneous backlash to the indiscriminate killings cost the PIRA much support even in nationalist circles. And the highly emotional outburst of U2 frontman Bono live on stage was well documented in the movie “Rattle & Hum”.
Desperate attempts by the PIRA leadership to claim the Enniskillen massacre as a “legitimate attack” (targeting “crown forces”) gone terribly wrong went largely unnoticed. A hare-brained attempt to blame security personnel for actually setting off a remote-controlled PIRA bomb (by unwittingly using interfering electronic devices while sweeping the area) followed. Only in 1995 did the PIRA admit that this was a blatant lie – the bomb was not remote-controlled but set off by a timer, claimed to have been faulty. The “active service unit” responsible was later “disbanded”.
In 1997 Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said during a radio interview, marking the tenth anniversary of the bombing, “I hope there will be no more Enniskillens and I am deeply sorry about what happened in Enniskillen.” Less than a year later dissident republicans committed the worst single attack of the “Troubles” in Omagh, killing 28 civilians.
The restored, muted war memorial in the center of Enniskillen is a fitting reminder of this atrocity – one dove for each of the victims of the Remembrance Day attack has been added.
Places to go on Remembrance Day
Obviously Enniskillen would be the most poignant place to attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies – if one plans to attend out of respect for the dead, not out of morbid curiosity.
Ceremonies marking Remembrance Day are generally held all over Northern Ireland at war memorials, in churches or at gravesides … even on the picturesque shore of Lough Erne at Castle Archdale. Here the lake itself is a designated war grave, the last resting place of the crew of a crashed “flying boat”.
In the Republic of Ireland Remembrance Day takes place in discreet quiet, if at all – a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge being the most obvious sign.