Earlier yesterday I received a telephone call from the Irish Embassy to the Kingdom of Belgium informing me that I had been awarded a research fellowship to work with the Irish War Graves Commission at the In Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres. I had applied for this position in March by submitting an essay on ‘The Meaning of World War I to Ireland.’ To be perfectly honest I felt that this application would be unsuccessful. The essay I produced focused on the failure of the present Irish government to engage with the revolutionary and antinomian forces behind the 1916 Easter Rising, due, I argued, to Ireland’s implementation of a harsh European austerity agenda and the powerful symbolism of the Rising to the Irish anti-austerity movement – preferring to sidestep these issues by appropriating the noble cause and gallantry of the so-called Great War. After having given up any hope of hearing back from the Commission I had put the entire thing to the back of my head. So the call yesterday caught me completely off guard. I was lost for words (which is rare). Perhaps one or two of the decision makers in this commemorative project were of a similar opinion apropos the present government’s use of the 1914-18 conflict. Perhaps they assume that they will be meeting a devoted Sinn Féiner later this summer.
Regardless of my own opinions on the use or perceived abuse of the memory of the First World War, it is still important that we remember it, and remember it with due reverence. I have no truck with the monarchic, aristocratic, industrialist, and imperialist agendas and ideologies behind the war. Greed and the lust for power motivated the wealthy and the powerful to send the poor and powerless of Europe, in their millions, to a war that was indistinguishable from hell. This global catastrophe annihilated an entire generation of young men, and robbed countless innocent civilians of their lives, and devastated the entire continent of Europe. Yet this was a war in which real people suffered and died, and many of those who perished were people belonging to us. My own great-grandfather fought on the Western Front in the sixth battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He wasn’t a man of note – certainly not if we are to measure human value by the yardstick of British imperialism. He was a boy during the war, and after the war he was an iron foundry labourer. These lads were nothing more than the working backbone that built Britain and Ireland, and these lads were driven to their deaths by privileged psychopaths like lambs to the chopping block. It is these poor wandered souls we must love and remember. I suppose I will go to Flanders with the weight of this on my heart.