Category: Archive

Editorial The right thing

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

"They were unionist and they were nationalist, they were Catholic and they were Protestant — they were from every single part of this island — almost 50,000 of them died."

With those simple words, Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, closed the book on a truly regrettable chapter of Irish history. In the U.S., which has long honored its veterans, and particularly its war dead, openly, sincerely and, most of all, publicly, such a recounting would have seemed boilerplate, even trite. But in Ireland, that long overdue acknowledgment of the supreme sacrifice made by so many Irish men in World War I is nothing short of a revelation.

Just as remarkable, of course, is where, under what circumstances and with whom McAleese said those words: at the Belgium’s Messine Ridge battle site, during the recent Armistice Day ceremonies, in the presence of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. It was yet another sign of Ireland’s growing confidence and maturity that it could finally step forward to help commemorate an event of such magnitude in world history.

But turn away for a moment from that larger canvas. The smaller is significant as well. Indeed, in recognizing the sacrifices of her sons, North and South, Ireland has faced up to its own past and in the process begun to erase a verdict that said that those who fought for Britain were somehow unpatriotic. That opinion, seldom uttered but always understood, was a stigma against a generation that fought and survived that war to end all wars, a stigma that forced many to live out their lives with the horror of that experience locked within. For them, there was no ceremony, no public acknowledgment of their sacrifice, no one to share their burden.

And what motivated them to fight? Was it a love of Britain? Hardly. Many were simply poor men, uneducated and facing a bleak future. The lure of adventure, the occasional hot meal and a pension — or widow’s benefits — cannot be underestimated.

Said McAleese: "They kept their heads down. They kept their memories in shoeboxes. It is time to redeem those memories and restore them to the place they are deserving of."

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Few are left to hear her words. But their children — here and in Ireland — can take some comfort in the knowledge that Ireland has finally done the right thing.

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