Flanders Poppies and Easter Lillies: Commemoration of the First World War in Waterford, 1918-1939

This is the talk which I gave on Sunday afternoon during the History and Heritage weekend as part of the Imagine Arts Festival. The poem  to which I refer throughout is Isaac Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the TrenchesA reading of this poem prefaced my talk. Some of this material was previously written for The Dustbin of History, but was updated for this talk.

If Isaac Rosenberg’s poem focuses on any one thing, I’d say it’s those he describes as “less chanced than you for life/ Bonds to the whims of murder/ Sprawled in the bowels of the earth/ The torn fields of France.” If Irish history has been about something in the twentieth century, it has been about forgetting these same people, and then remembering them.

In the past year, Waterford city and county has seen the erection of two memorials to Waterford’s dead from the first world war, one in Dungarvan, and one more recently here in the centre of the city by the Bishop’s Palace. In recent years there has been a greater engagement by both academic historians and the general public with experience of Irish men and women during the First World War. Publications like the Royal Irish Academy and RTE’s Our War and the Cork volume A Great Sacrifice have helped to bring the history of Irish involvement in the conflict to the fore of public consciousness. Partially driven by the continued revisions of that period of Irish history, which has included a desire to place the history of Ireland into a broader framework of the rest of what then constituted the United Kingdom, but to also bring Irish history into closer contact with the narratives of wider European history. We may well have spent much of the twentieth century forgetting, but between one war, hideously described as ‘Great’ and another, many Waterford people were busy remembering.

Waterford had a proportionately quite high number of men join up to fight in the First World War. The reasons for enlistment were myriad – some joined for adventure, for the prestige and standing brought by a military uniform, some for politics, but it seems fair to say that for the greater mass of these men, their impetus for joining was economic. According to Thomas Dooley’s groundbreaking work on the subject of Waterford men who fought in the war, by August 1915 around 1,756 Waterford men of military age had enlisted to fight in the war. That is: 35% of all the available men from Waterford. In total, about 366 men who were resident in Waterford when the war began died during the conflict, just over half a total number of 649 men who were born in Waterford city or country who died in the conflict but enlisted elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly then, when the war came to an end in November of 1918, the tradition of marking Armistice Day took on important significance in Waterford, in both city and the county. This memorialising began immediately, with Armistice Day being marked in the city and county almost instantaneously. But as we’re going to see over the course of the next half hour or so, the commemoration of the war dead didn’t take place in a vacuum free of politics. Indeed as it is now, it was then: commemorating the war dead of Waterford, a necessary process for those left behind in the city, was a process riven with politics, and steeped with political meaning and gestures.

Given the domestic upheavals of the period the act of remembering was often complicated. In Dungarvan, at the height of the War of Independence in 1920 for instance, there was some concern about whether or not shops would close as a mark of respect during the procession in the town and it appears that the local British forces stationed in the town ensured that businesses did indeed close by marching, fixed bayonets in hand, through the main street just after 11 o’clock in the morning, which prompted most businesses to shut their doors. In Dan Fraher’s store, two of his shop assistants were compelled to leave the shop and forced marched with the Union jack to remove the Irish tricolour from a position on the castle in the town and were both then brought to the barracks followed by a group of waggish young lads who whistled Wrap the Green Flag Around Me. It is alleged they were then beaten and thrown into a field after the tricolour was replaced with the Union Jack, after a lorry-load of Black and Tans apparently arrived on the scene.

Following the cessation of hostilities between the IRA and the British armed forces and with the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, and the formation of the new state in 1922, memorializing of Waterford’s war dead was less tense in the coming years than it had been during the War of Independence. It was in 1922 that Waterford saw its biggest such gathering yet on Armistice Day, November 11. The memorials which had been taking place each November in Waterford city were organised by the local Legion of Ex-Service Men’s Club. On this, the fourth such marking of Armistice Day, the crowds attending was said to be very large, and indeed the largest yet seen for the occasion. The procession was headed by the Legion Clubs banner, and included both the Barrack Street Brass and Reed Band and the Erin’s Hope Band. Although the Barrack Street Band led the procession, and Erin’s Hope Band were the back marker, interspersed between the various Legion members, including the Portlaw branch, widows, and other family members were also the Thomas Francis Meagher Band and the Legion’s own band. When the procession along Barrack Street and the Mayor’s Walk ended at Ballybricken all four bands played the “Dead March” from Handel’s Saul, each in turn. The role of music, and the juxtaposition of these musical strains with the two-minutes silence that accompanied the marking of the Armistice was a crucial part of memorialising the First World War generally and the impact of it in Waterford is palpable from the newspaper reports. You must try to imagine the scene out there on Ballybricken green – hundreds and thousands huddled in the kind of weather we all know in November, only four years after the death of sons, brothers and friends, the suppressed cough of someone trying hard to hold back tears, not to break that silence. The banners of the bands and the Legion fluttering, all following in the wake of that brassy music. It was said in the papers that children held aloft pieces of paper with the names of the dead – a kind of makeshift graveyard on the green for bodies not returned home.

Capt. Willie Redmond, nephew of former Waterford MP John, was summoned, and he gave a rousing speech to the people assembled on Ballybricken saying that he hoped that in time to come that Irish ex-servicemen would also see the benefits that were sure to accrue to Ireland in the future. He finished his speech by saying he hoped that the Legion would “in each succeeding year, as has been the case in the past… will find a still greater manifestation of devotion and reverence for the memories of our comrades of the days gone by.”

The following years the numbers attending the memorial in Waterford apparently increased again. The fifth anniversary also mentions that the Flanders poppy was on sale and “worn by many” throughout the day. The report also made note that the memorial services were held across religious denominations, but the one in Christ Church was noted especially for the tolling of its bells in memory of the dead. The assembly of the marchers began at 2.30, with the procession again headed by the Legion Club’s banner and the Barrack Street Band beginning at 3pm. The report in the Munster Express noted that one of the most splendid banners was that of the Waterford branch of the Sailors and Firemen’s Union. The circuit of the procession, which began in Ballybricken went from  Morgan Street, through Thomas Street, along The Quay, The Mall, Parnell Street, Johnstown, Ballytruckle and back to Ballybricken via Bunker’s Hill, Barrack Street and the Mayor’s Walk. The solemnity of the occasion at the end of the march is remarkable, the banner of the Legion and the Unions were placed in the centre of a circle when four lone buglers played the Last Post, led by Trumpeter Fox, bringing the procession to an end. Again we can easily imagine the scene taking place not more than a few hundred yards from here. The procession was much the same as that in the previous year, the routine of the grieving amongst friends undoubtedly a relief for some.

The same procession took place the following year, with the circle being formed and all banners and placards with the names of the dead being placed in the centre as music was played. It was estimated that some 11,000 turned out in 1924 for the marking of Armistice Day in Waterford. Again music had an important role to play in the proceedings, with all four of the city bands taking part each year. The 1926 procession saw special notice being given to 80 plus Waterford men who perished with SS Formby and SS Coningbeg, two ships owned by the Clyde Shipping Company, with a specific memorialisation for those men taking place at 11.40am that day on the Waterford Bridge. That year as well their being the usual four city bands, they were also joined by a band from New Ross, Co. Wexford and the Welsh Miner’s Band from Maesteg, a part of Wales with deep Irish connections. The favour was returned by the Waterford Legion band the following year, with a large crowd travelling for Remembrance Sunday celebrations by train to New Ross.

On the tenth anniversary of the Armistice, we are told that crowds were not what they had been though apparently inclement weather had militated against the celebrations somewhat on that occasion. The procession was much the same as in previous years, and there were commemorations in both Waterford and Tramore separately. The eleventh anniversary was well-marked again but after this, there seems to be a drop off in the scale and coverage of the Armistice Day memorials happening in Waterford. The reports of 1930 in the local press recognise as much though notice again the sale and wearing of poppies in the city on the Saturday and Sunday around the Armistice, which the Munster Express claimed reckoned £91 the previous year, raising an almost identical sum of £90 in 1930.

The nature of remembrance was to change in the 1930s, and with the election of Fianna Fáil to government in 1932, there was renewed debate about the poppy and about remembrance day ceremonies here in Waterford. Indeed, at the annual general meeting of the Legion of Ex-Servicemen that year, it was decided that since the usual procession was subject to approval of the guards and government, it would be better not to seek such permission and for that year not have the usual procession. With a strong Fianna Fáil government now in power, these men, and those who lost family and friends to the war, felt it would be too much hassle to express their grief and remember their friends and relations in a way they had been for more than a decade. In a country still two years from the introduction of unemployment relief, and with unemployment growing in the city, the money given out by the Legion, drawn up from the money often raised on Armistice Day by the sale of poppies, this decreased presence would affect the lives of people day to day. Indeed only weeks before Armistice Day, the man who represented the organized unemployed of Waterford, Thomas Purdue, in one speech given in the People’s Park in the city said that ‘if unemployment is not dealt with as a national question, it will become a living cancer on the life of the state. We exceed in number, by far, any other party in the country, and our demands are the largest. It is up to you to concentrate on the goal you set before yourselves…work for every unemployed man.’ Becoming increasingly incendiary Purdue exclaimed that ‘if we are not going to get what we want, we will have the city like the Temple of Jerusalem. We won’t leave a stone upon a stone.’ This gives some sense of the desperation felt by many in Waterford, no doubt many of them people who thanks to the war, were not what was even in those days known as the able-bodied unemployed.

Despite these changed circumstances, some of the Armistice Day processions which did occur in the 1930s were equal in scale and power to those of the 1920s. On one occasion in the 1930s, as well as the usual markers of remembrance, several of the city’s factories, and the ships docked on the quay, sounded their various whistles and horns as a mark of recognition of Armistice Day.

The worry was expressed during Fianna Fáil’s time in government by the head of the local branch of the Legion of Ex-Servicemen that the wearing of the poppy might be banned in law. Fianna Fáil were a party alive to symbolism, and at the same time that those in the Legion worried about being banned from wearing their poppy on Armistice Day, Fianna Fáil in its attempts to wrest the republican cause from anti-treatyites and the IRA, introduced the torch as a symbol to remember Irish republicans who had died in the war of independence. This symbol was short-lived and unpopular, and many people, including Fianna Fáil supporters here in Waterford, persisted in the wearing of the republican symbol of the Easter lily.

Around the same time that the Legion was worrying about the declining money being made from the sale of the Flanders poppy, and having to even consider ending its annual commemorations, by contrast those who supported the republican movement, were appearing in their thousands to commemorate republicans who had fought and died, with an equal sense of occasion, with readings of the text of the 1916 proclamation a part of events. In 1932, the year when the Legion gave up its procession, several thousand marched in Waterford to Ballygunner at Easter time, many of the thousands displaying the Easter lily, to commemorate those who had died in the struggle for Irish independence. In 1933, the following year, General Sir Guy Beatty, President of the Waterford branch of the British Legion of Ex-Servicemen, gave a brief speech about the poppy as a symbol and attempts to have the wearing of it on November 11th banned. He said that:

The reason they give are that these tokens that you and I are wearing, these artificial poppies, are badges of Imperialism; and that it is due to British propaganda that you and I are wearing these poppies to-day. It is hardly necessary for me to point out to you that these poppies are not badges of Imperialism… these simple little emblems we wear to-day in token of remembrance of those gallant comrades who fell in the Great War. I would urge you always as long as the laws of the land permit to wear this poppy of remembrance.

Beatty’s view of course was typical of someone who was born into, and a significant member of, the British Empire. Born in Poona, India, his was a military life, joining the Royal Irish Rifles at 19 before entering Hodson’s 9th Horse. He was later Aide de Campe to George V in 1924, and the reasons he wore the poppy were undoubtedly political as well as personal. For most of those he spoke to in Ballybricken graveyard that November, things like the poppy and the Legion, was as much about survival, putting food in bellies and clothes on backs, as it was about politics. It was of course too a rare occasion on which these people who had lost sons, brothers, nephews, uncles, and fathers could openly display their grief at their loss as part of a community of people who understood and shared that loss.

We are now two years into the decade of commemoration. In a recent Irish Independent pull-out looking back at the passing of Home Rule in 1914, one author made the point that commemoration was not in itself celebratory. Similarly, earlier this summer when magazine History Ireland produced its special issue on the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, Tommy Graham’s editorial made the point that having once hidden the history of Irishmen who fought in the First World War, it would not do simply to celebrate the diversity of Irish history by acknowledging it. The temptation to do this has been summed up neatly recently in the Dublin Review of Books by historian and journalist, Padraig Yeates, who wrote ‘if we only look at the past with a sentimental eye, it is not only a waste of time but a dangerous illusion. We should be as careful about what we remember as we should be about what we wish for.’

Commemoration need not be – indeed I would say should not be bombastic celebration, an opportunity for engaging in ahistorical nostalgia for a lost Empire of which Ireland was a part. When people stood in Ballybricken green or around the graveyard of the church, listened to the plaintive sounds of the last post or the reveille, they were stood there on those cold November days not in a celebratory mood. Theirs was the heavy and hard work of remembering people they knew who died in violent, ugly ways in places whose names were irrevocably tinged with sadness and loss. When it had become politically unfashionable for these people to share their grief with their city and their neighbours, they were moved from the main streets and thoroughfares – our great public spaces – inside the gates of a graveyard to carry out their lonely business of remembering away from the public imagination. Grief was made private where once it was public. In time it was forgotten, as were the hard economic realities that saw people from cities like Waterford joining up as have been the reasons why people needed the poppy – not alone for solidarity, not as a symbol of imperial support, but in a world without a net for the most vulnerable, it was a source of sustenance. As it was for Isaac Rosenberg, for these people too, the poppies were ‘Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins/ Drop, and are ever dropping.’

With the unveiling of the two new memorials in Waterford this year, then, a more permanent memorial to those from the city and county who died can stand in the stead of the hundreds and thousands of those who throughout the 1920s stood on Ballybricken green, Legion and Union banners fluttering as the Last Post emanated from the trumpets and bugles of locals.


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