In the years following Irish independence, one issue of contention that existed was the issue of political commemoration, and just what ‘war dead’ could and should be remembered in the city. While the state was constructing the narrative of the revolution it claimed had brought about its establishment, thousands of Irish citizens still identified with, and partook in, events like Armistice Day. The poppy was openly sold in Dublin and other Irish cities and towns, and thousands would march in honour of Ireland’s war dead on an annual basis. This brief post looks at the Armistice Day celebrations in 1926, when an impressive 40,000 people attended the ceremony in the Phoenix Park, at the Wellington obelisk. Similar demonstrations occurred in the years before and after 1926, but this post uses it as a sort of case study.
The popularity of Armistice Day, or ‘Poppy Day’, is evident from sales of the remembrance poppy in Dublin in the 1920s. In his history of the IRA from 1926 to 1936, Brian Hanley notes that “Poppy Day was observed by thousands of people, particularly in Dublin during the 1920s.” It was claimed by the British Legion that over 500,000 poppies were sold in the Dublin area in 1924. This was at a time before the British Legion had even opened an office in Dublin, which they did in 1925. It was late October of 1925 when the poppy was formally launched in Ireland, something which led republican women to the creation of the Easter lily in 1926, as an ‘alternative’ symbol, and Ann Matthews has looked at this symbol in great detail during the course of her research on the role of women in the republican movement. The popularity of the Easter Lily never even approached that of the Poppy. In the inaugural year of the symbol, we know from Cumann na mBan’s (The women’s republican movement) own Annual Reports that only £34 was raised from sales of the lily, pittance when contrasted with the £7,430 evident from the “Annual Report of the Southern Ireland Area of the British Legion”, documenting poppy sales.
Armistice Day in 1926 witnessed a huge procession through the streets of the capital, destined for the Phoenix Park. The Irish Times wrote after the event that “Dublin was astir early for the ceremonies, and at 8am the great march to the Phoenix Park began.” Crowds assembled in the park, and were joined by ex-servicemen who marked from Beresford Place, ironically the home of Liberty Hall, and where the immortal words ‘We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser- But Ireland’ had hung on a banner just over a decade previously in an act of anti-war defiance. On the command being given by A.P Connolly, President of the British Legion in the Free State, about twenty different contingents of ex-servicemen began the march to the Wellington monument in the Phoenix Park.
The Irish Times wrote of this gathering of the park that:
It would be hard, indeed, to estimate the size of the gathering. It did not, however, number less than forty thousand. From an early hour people began to arrive by every kind of vehicle and on foot, and an hour before the ceremony began the wide open space in the Phoenix Park surrounding the Wellington Monument was densely crowded.
The Wellington monument, completed in 1861, commemorates Arthur Wellesley, who secured British victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. As Prime Minister of Britain, Wellesley oversaw Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and his statue in the Phoenix Park is one of the grandest monuments on the island. Footage of the huge assembly at Wellington’s memorial in 1926 is available on the British Pathe website, and can be viewed here.
Newspaper reports at the time noted that a perfect silence followed the Last Post, and “so deeply impressive it was that when one closed one’s eyes to pray one felt alone in the vast acres’ of the park.” Yet Remembrance Day was not perfectly observed in the city, as some republican and anti-imperialist elements organised protests around the events, something which had been occurring in the years before 1926, and would escalate in the 1930s, with the IRA organising protests under the auspices of the Anti-Imperialist League. An interesting quote in Hanley’s book from Frank Ryan shows that he believed the British Legion marchers would be drawn mainly from “bank clerks and students of Trinity College”, but in reality this just wasn’t the case. As Hanley correctly notes, “a section of working class Dublin continued to identify with its contribution during the First World War well into the next decade, but the image of well heeled pro-British demonstrators was a powerful mobilising tool.” Adrian Hoar notes in his biography of Ryan that the annual demonstrations against Poppy Day “would become synonymous in the public mind with his name”, but other influential figures such as Peadar O’Donnell were also involved.
Among the thousands gathered in the Phoenix Park, newspaper reports noted that a “party of Fasciti in their striking black shirts” was to be found. While there was no physical confrontation in the park between veterans, republicans and others, there were some scenes of violence in Dublin on the day, although not on the same scale as previous Armistice Day celebrations. The Irish Times noted that “between 300 and 400 men and women” were involved in opposition to the day, and noted that:
Divided into gangs, they moved about the city, snatching poppies from peaceable citizens and molesting ex-servicemen. One gang, larger than the others, attacked two police men in Dawson Street, and broke into the Representative Body in St. Stephen’s Green in order to remove a Union Jack from a window.
Union flags were burnt in the city too, in one instance following a meeting on O’Connell Street which was addressed by the republican priest Michael Flanagan among others. Another flag was burnt at College Green. The violence of Armistice Day led to the republican socialist George Gilmore appearing in court, on charges of assault, as this 20 November newspaper report details. Gilmore would spend a period in prison for his activities, but was later instrumental to moving sections of the republican movement to the left in the 1930s.
Throughout the 1930s, street violence became much more common place at political commemorations in Dublin. Not alone did the republican-left continue to organise in opposition to Armistice Day, but there would also be violent confrontation with the Blueshirts and the nationalist right. This brief post is by no means a very in-depth look at Armistice Day events even in 1926, but is designed simply to show that four years after independence, and a decade on from the Easter Rising, some in Dublin still identified with the commemorative events of the British Empire.