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Reflection by Michael D. Higgins, Uachtarán na hÉireann Tofa, on Armistice Day 2018

Glasnevin Cemetery, Sunday, 11 November 2018

A cháirde,

Bailithe mar atáimid chun ómós a thabhairt dóibh siúd a maraíodh, a gortaíodh, agus a d'fhulaing sa Chéad Chogadh Domhanda, maraon lena gclanna, tugaimis ómós dóibh siúd ar fad.

One hundred years ago the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, signalling the conclusion of one thousand five hundred and sixty-four days of continuous warfare, waged from the fields of Flanders to the mountains of Italy, and from the hills and ravines of Greece to the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the first of two wars that would disfigure a century.

We assemble, on this most solemn day, to remember the fourteen million souls who lost their lives in that terrible conflagration. Ours is not a celebration of militarism, nor a valorisation of martial spirit, but a simple recognition of our common humanity, as we recall the destruction of the promise and potential of a generation in the First World War, the lasting damage inflicted on the millions wounded and maimed, and the countless others who would go on to suffer mental anguish as a result of the horrors of their war experience. Is mór an méid a d'fhulaing siad.

We remember, in particular, the two hundred thousand men from across the island of Ireland, North and South, East and West, who served in that war, and we call to mind in a special way the tens of thousands who never returned home who remain forever in the soil of Belgium, France, Greece and Turkey.

Not driven by a single political aspiration, nor by a single animating motivation, some fought for the rights of small nations, some in defence of the United Kingdom and the Union, some for adventure, while others were compelled by economic necessity in a country still feeling the aftershocks of the Lockout of 1913. We must respect their ideas as they knew and felt them.  Yet, despite all the differences of religion, class and political aspiration, they were united by what would be a shared experience of war, the humanity expressed towards each other, with its comradeship, friendship and shared hardship whether it was on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, or in the Middle East.

There, they joined soldiers, drawn not only from the continent of Europe – Germans, French, British, Belgians, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Russians, Slovenes, Turks, Czechs, Finns, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Moldavians, Byelorussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Croatians and Slovaks – nor from nations across the oceans – the United States, China, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – but also many who came from lands ruled by the empires of Europe – from Western and Central Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Madagascar, the Middle East, Somalia and India, for the war represented a collision of empires. 

Some of those who were thrown into the maelstrom of the war demonstrated remarkable courage and bravery in the most trying and difficult of circumstances. They were witnesses to the barbarism and brutality of a war made all the more terrifying by the perverse use of a new science and technology and industrial power in the pursuit of total war and mutual destruction. 

Writing upon hearing of the death of his friend the great Irish poet and public servant, Thomas MacGreevy, reflected the disorientation of millions of soldiers who found themselves in the blasted landscape of the Front:

I labour in a barren place,
Alone, self-conscious, frightened, blundering;
Far away, stars wheeling in space,
About my feet, earth voices whispering.

When the soldiers of the First World War returned to their homes they found countries and empires transformed. It was a return that varied in accordance with new circumstances. From the old dynastic empires to the East arose new nations seeking self-determination, pursuing a renewed and hard-won liberty. Here, in our country, some of those who came from the front threw themselves into our own battle for national independence, while others would experience a lack of sorrow, compassion, understanding of either their service or their wounds and would struggle to find their place in a rapidly changing Ireland. 

For many years, there was an uncertainty, even a reticence, to recognise the human cost and reality of the First World War, and those who fought and died in it. In our public history, the reticence was reflected by a form of official amnesia that left a blank space in our public memory. 

That has now changed, as citizens across our island have begun to discover a greater – and perhaps too long-delayed – insight into the experience of their grandparents, great-grandparents and neighbours. With this excavation of the past we have a far greater understanding of the motivation of those who enlisted in the war effort, and a better appreciation of the experience of the war, not only for those in uniform, but for civilians. 

As we assemble this morning to remember our dead, we are joining peoples from across the world. We do so in a spirit of solidarity and compassion, and we do so in a world still sadly subject to war and the rumours of war, a world that still seems – if I may borrow from the words of Martin Luther King from another time and another place – 
‘a [world] gone mad on war’, a world in which, more than at any other time, so many people are subject to atrocities, to famine, to starvation and to displacement and exile. 

Even as we, in these first decades of the twenty-first century, have the material capacity to abolish all forms of human poverty, to alleviate all unnecessary suffering, we are still devoting so much of our creativity, not to the preservation or achievement of peace, but to the prosecution of and preparation for war. 

Amidst great human suffering, some nations now seek to embark upon a new arms race, increasing not only their own stockpiles, but exporting weapons of death and destruction to fuel the fires of war in other lands, in Yemen, in Syria, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

On this Armistice Day we are called to remember. We must remember how easily the powers of Europe, with all their centuries of scholarship, philosophy and learning, cast it all aside and fell into enduring and terrible enmity. We must affirm as we remember that solidarity amongst peoples and nations is not only a moral necessity, but that it is fragile and that it must be asserted again and again as our shared aspiration. We must remember that peace will only ever be established, and can only be sustained, when it is based upon the principles of justice, dignity and mutual respect.

Let us then, on this day, re-dedicate ourselves to cause of peace, and the support of those institutions which promote and preserve the peace. 

Let us recall the great spirit that animated Europe in the days and months and years after Armistice Day, the spirit that gave birth to the League of Nations. 

Let us re-capture that rare spirit of mutual solidarity, that recognition of our common humanity, and let us once again resolve to build, together, a more just and equal world, free from the terrors of war.  

Síochán síoraí d'anamacha na marbh. Guímis beannachtaí ar a gclanna.