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Respect and Loyalty for the Forgotten address at Glasnevin Cemetery












I think that everyone here would agree that the fact that our Civil War ever took place was both tragic and shameful. Those who by their words and actions caused the Civil War to happen must bear the moral and historic responsibility and blame for all the lives that were lost, for all the lives that were ruined, for all the grief and sorrow that those actions and words caused, and for the colossal political, cultural, social, and economic damage wrought in the early days and years of Irish independence.

That tragedy is compounded by the oblivion that descended on those who lost their lives defending the democratic will and institutions of the Irish people – up to 1000 soldiers of all ranks, from private soldier to commander-in-chief - who died in the uniform of their country, wearing the cap-badge of the Irish Volunteers – Óglaigh na h-Éireann – founded less than ten years previously to gain Ireland’s freedom. My grandfather Eoin MacNeill presided at their foundation this day the 25th November, in 2013.

Their sacrifice and their loss to their loved ones goes largely unacknowledged and un-commemorated by the Irish state to this day.

Their loss to memory contrasts to a notable extent with the fate of many who took up arms against them and paid with their lives. Many of the opponents of the National Army are commemorated by monuments, ceremonies, poetry, and song right around our land to this day. Many of their opponents’ names have lived on in history, while memory of most of those in the National Army who gave their lives for their country seems long erased.

I recently attended the significant and moving public commemorations in Sligo of the killing by Free State soldiers of Sligo’ Noble Six, including my own uncle Brian MacNeill, on Ben Bulben on 20th September 1922 – a terrible deed.

But I also had in my own mind the memory of other Free State soldiers from Sligo - at least 22 in number - who died at the hands of Brian and his colleagues. No centenary commemoration for them, I thought.

The only traces I could find of fallen Free State soldiers in Sligo are an obscure plaque in a wall at Rockwood Parade in Sligo for six of them who were ambushed and killed at Rockwood on 14th July 1922, and a very small, sadly broken, stone crucifix now almost lost in bogland at Bonniconlon, which marks where Brigadier General Joe Ring was killed by those fighting alongside my uncle Brian on 14th September 1922, six days before the killing of the Noble Six.  

The Irish state has correctly changed its former attitude to the commemoration of the tens of thousands of Irishmen who lost their lives in the Great War of 1914-1918. We have built the peace tower at Messines and rescued from destruction the Memorial Gardens designed by Lutyens at Islandbridge. The Taoiseach recently laid a wreath at the Great War memorial at Enniskillen. Ceremonies and monuments of remembrance for the Irish dead of the Great War, once shamefully neglected, are now recognised in our official national narrative and calendar. And that is right and just.

But, strangely, no State commemoration of those who died in the defence of the newly independent Irish state has happened to afford them parity of esteem. James Langton rightly reminds us this morning of Dr Anne Dolan’s pithy verdict:

“Nothing has robbed the Free State soldier of his dignity more than his government’s treatment of his memory.”

Why should this be? I think that there is some reluctance among modern historians to recognise the justice of the cause in defence of which the soldiers of the National Army of the Irish Free State fell. There is, in my view, a great danger in according complete moral equivalence to either side of the Civil War conflict. Perhaps there is a wish to distance us from the policy of executing those found in arms against the Free State, the Dáil and its democratic institutions, and a sense of guilt in relation to the shooting of 85 such prisoners by Free State firing squads after summary courts martial.

Perhaps too, in the context of the history of violence in Northern Ireland, we see the danger of what can be so easily seen as partisan historical commemoration of violent events. The “decade of centenaries” has, largely speaking, tip-toed around the Civil War in pursuit of an anodyne policy of offering the minimum of offence and the maximum of bland analysis and consensus.

While that approach may serve some purposes, it seems to me that the passage of 100 years should afford us the intellectual and emotional space and freedom to make some moral judgments concerning the grave wrong that was done by those who publicly countenanced “wading through the blood” of fellow Irishmen to overthrow the wishes of a majority in their parliament and of a majority of the people expressed in the ballot box.

It is perhaps fitting that the grave of Michael Collins – a man who did his utmost to avoid the bloodshed of civil war – lies in a plot where many of the Forgotten Fallen of the army he led lie buried with him. His grave – the most visited in this cemetery - remains a place of pilgrimage to this day; but those buried close beside him made the same sacrifice as he did and without the separate monument so grudgingly granted him as late as 1939.

It is to the memory and sacrifice of the mostly forgotten 183 comrades-in-arms lying here in Glasnevin - and in graves scattered across Ireland -that we have gathered to do honour today.

We are not here today to re-open old wounds nor to re-kindle historical rancour.  We are simply gathered here, in a spirit of gratitude and conciliation, to honour the Forgotten Fallen of our national army, wherever they lie buried and who have for a century until now been dishonoured by official neglect.

I hope I speak for all of us here today in calling for redress of that injustice by the recognition and commemoration by the Irish state and by Óglaigh na h-Éireann – our defence force in which they served  – of all those who fell in its uniform and in defence of our democracy during the Civil War.

The sacrifice they made and their memory deserve that much.

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