Fifteen years ago, Taoiseach John Bruton spoke of at least 10,000 men from the Republic of Ireland dying fighting for Commonwealth forces in the Second World War. Despite the Peace Process, despite the ending of the Troubles, despite years of massive social change, those men still go for the most part unrecognized.
Today’s 65th anniversary of VE Day makes front page news on the BBC website, but merits not a mention on the RTE NEWS; 10,000 Irishmen remain written out of Irish history.
Back in 1985, on the 40th anniversary, I realized I would always be a stranger in the land in which I lived.
A good friend recounted a memory of VE Day in 1945 from his childhood days in Co Wexford. His mother had woken him and said to him, ‘the war is over’.
‘Did Wexford win?’ he replied.
I remember smiling at the time, and then thinking almost immediately that the anecdote meant I would forever be an outsider.
Being born fifteen years after the end of the war, I grew up surrounded by memories and stories of the events of 1939-45. It would have been unthinkable, even from an early age, not to have known the story. The war was part of the folk memory of my people – it was about who we were and what we could do. Winston Churchill’s comment about this being the ‘finest hour’, when the British were at their most battered and defeated was a tribute deeply felt by his people.
What figures large in the folk memory of one group of people, may not be nearly so important for another group. Being once asked in the North about the observance of 12th July in England, I was told I did not know what I was talking about when I said it meant nothing there.
The VE Day anniversary will pass unnoticed in the south Dublin community in which I live. The memories passed on to me as a child will be meaningless for my own children.
In an age of globalization and massive migration around the world, perhaps trying hold on to a set of memories is an unnecessary indulgence, yet memories and identities have gone together for thousands of years. The people of Israel during their decades of exile in Babylon in the 7th Century BC refused to sing their traditional songs, ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ they asked in Psalm 137. They hung up their lyres and refused to play and called judgment on themselves if they failed to remember the past.
Remembering events, so important to my native community, in a place where there is no-one who remembers, I think I feel like one of those ancient Israelites.