Northern Ireland's Memories of 1916
and The Trouble with the Past
Tammy M. Proctor

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.

W. B. Yeats, Easter 1916

In the post-1998 world of Northern Irish memory, few years loom as large as 1916. For both the Unionist and the Nationalist factions in the North, the year marks a turning point in their creationist myth and a foundational cornerstone in their sectarian historical narratives. For the Unionists, 1916 constituted proof of their blood sacrifice for the Union with Britain, and it provides evidence of their “no surrender” mentality. Unionists only need point to the 36th Ulster Division’s heroic stand at the Somme on July 1, 1916 in which they reached enemy lines before being forced to retreat, sustaining more than five thousand casualties (Orr, 200). The year 1916 marked a very different trial by fire for Nationalists; it witnessed the birth of the modern revolutionary impulse for independence in Ireland and launched what would become a bloody civil war and revolution. The Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin was important to the building of a Nationalist narrative, but more significantly, it was the British reaction to the Rising that launched a militant Republican movement. Thousands were imprisoned, and the leaders of the Rising were executed quickly in Dublin (Costello, 17–23). These two events, the Somme and the Easter Rising, have provided competing notions of what Irish nationalism should look like.

Perhaps these wartime incidents might have receded into distant memory had it not been for the rise of sectarian “Troubles” in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. The founding of the Loyalist paramilitary organization, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), in 1966 explicitly harkened back to the UVF of the pre-First World War years, which became the Ulster Division. The birth of the UVF also coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, tying the two together in popular memory and providing a vocabulary of nationalism and sacrifice for the fledgling Loyalist groups. At the same time, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was playing a central role in the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising; in Northern Ireland, these celebrations contributed to the radicalization and birth of the Provisional IRA (1969) in the wake of the failed civil rights demands of 1968 (English, 82). This explosive mix of historical memory, rising sectarian and nationalist violence, and the clash of young men seeking to prove their part in a blood sacrifice helped cement the importance of 1916 in Northern Irish memory.

This short article emerges from a Lilly Summer Seminar in Northern Ireland that was held in summer 2012 at Corrymeela, a peace and reconciliation center located in Ballycastle. The American seminar participants learned about the promise and limits of the 1998 Good Friday agreement in healing the wounds of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. We were also plunged headlong into the complex subtext of life in the North through our visits to the Orange parades and bonfires of July’s “marching season,” a tour of Derry with a former IRA combatant, and with the lectures, tours, and conversations planned for our month at Corrymeela. As an historian of the First World War, I was immediately drawn to the ways in which the iconography of the time of Troubles in Northern Ireland called upon the memories of the past and particularly of 1916, a crucial year in the sectarian script of Ireland’s past. Particularly intriguing were three moments during the seminar that raised the specter of 1916. The first of these came early in the trip when Michael Longley recited his 1972 poem, “Wounds,” during a reading at Corrymeela during our first full day in Ballycastle. In the poem, he evokes his father’s war experience at the Somme in the First World War, then juxtaposes it with the dead from the Troubles. His description of his father’s war depicts a foolhardy masculine heroism and sacrifice:

 First, the Ulster Division at the Somme
Going over the top with ‘Fuck the Pope!’
‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,
Screaming ‘Give ‘em one for the Shankill!’
‘Wilder than Gurkhas’ were my father’s words
Of admiration and bewilderment.
(Russell, 223–224)

 Soon after this reading, we visited the Protestant-dominated Shankill area of Belfast and saw the murals depicting the sacrifices of World War I. The murals depicted men at the Somme, the memorials to their memory in France, and the poppies of remembrance. Finally, we also visited the memorial gardens in the Falls neighborhood, where Catholics remembered the martyrs of violence. After each of these events, we discussed among ourselves the meaning of it all. Our conversations and questions led me to explore the real events of 1916 in Dublin and on the Somme in order to understand how these events have shaped popular memory of sacrifice.

The contemporary depictions of these 1916 martyrs, both in Loyalist and Republican iconography, use and misuse history for nationalist purposes. As one of our speakers, Damian Gorman, astutely noted, narrative can be a weapon in the sense that “our story obliterates your story.” Gorman argued, quite persuasively, that narratives of peace need to displace narratives of conflict for real change to take place. Corrymeela focuses on creating such a language of reconciliation, a space for dialogue and shared experience of humanity, but the iconography of 1916 poses an alternate dialectic of conflict, personal sacrifice, and division. In this article, I argue that 1916 became a cornerstone of the Northern Irish narrative partly because of its association with violence and partly because of the gendered model of heroism and martyrdom that it presented to a generation of men coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s. This narrative runs counter to the work of peace that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 sought to inculcate, and the murals, memorials, and “peace walls” constitute a constant reminder of the enmity and difference of the past.


Historical Context

For many reasons, 1916 was a critical year in the history of Ireland and the British Empire. After devastating losses at Gallipoli and Neuve Chapelle (among others) during 1915, British military planners saw 1916 in terms of a decisive offensive that would turn the tide of the war. Their plans centered around a large coordinated offensive in northern France that would follow attacks on other fronts, especially Russia, and that would allow Britain to break through the German lines. This battle, at the River Somme, featured a massive artillery barrage of 1.7 million shells across a front that was 22,000 yards wide (Beckett, 166–167). Altogether British forces suffered roughly 60,000 casualties on the first day of the battle alone (Ferguson, 293).

parade banner The Battle of the Somme became a defining moment in Northern Irish memory for two reasons initially. First, the opening day of the battle on July 1, 1916 coincided with the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, the 1690 conflict that had become a focus of Unionist identity in Northern Ireland by the time of World War I. Second, the Ulster Division, which was almost entirely Protestant and drawn from the tight-knit communities of northern Ireland, figured prominently in this battle, sustaining more than 5,000 casualties out of a force of 15,000 (Jeffery, 56). While all of Britain mourned the huge losses at the Somme, for those in the Ulster Protestant community, this sacrifice became framed in the larger argument for continued union with Great Britain (Loughlin, 135–136). As Nuala Johnson argues in her work on the geography of remembrance, “The losses of the first day of the Somme… cemented a sense of the social nature of Ulster’s sacrifices in the war. The Battle of the Somme became the archetype of Ulster’s loyalty and defence of the crown” (71) The Somme became enmeshed with the Orange parades of the July “marching season” and an integral part of the collective memory of Loyalists in Northern Ireland. It is no wonder that William of Orange sometimes shared a mural or a banner with soldiers of the Somme, as with the Hydepark Loyal Orange Lodge 1067 banner (Jarmin, 71–72). Many of the banners used in the July Loyalist parades continue to feature scenes from the Somme [Figure 1]. Murals featuring the Somme appeared as early as 1919 in Protestant neighborhoods, and the Northern Irish government supported commemoration of World War I as a Unionist event (Beiner, 382–383).

Two months prior to the events on the Somme, a small group of Irish Republicans organized for a coordinated strike against the British in Ireland. These men and women united around a belief that British promises would not lead to Home Rule in the postwar world, and they saw an opportunity for gaining freedom in the midst of Britain’s crisis in Europe. The Rising took place in Dublin a day later than planned on Easter Monday, a holiday that fell on April 24, 1916. Fewer than two thousand rebels took control of several public buildings in Dublin and declared an Irish republic, but the British Army quickly brought in troops to quell the revolt (Ward, 1–14). In the aftermath, martyrs emerged after the deportation and internment of nearly 1,800 participants and the brutal repression of the Rising. The key action was the execution of more than a dozen leaders under the wartime Defence of the Realm legislation (Costello, 19).

Irish Nationalists living in Northern Ireland have less of a direct connection between the Easter Rising and their historical memory or experiences, but the link is clear nonetheless in their iconography. For Republican groups, the leaders of the April 1916 rebellion experienced martyrdom at the hands of the British, and this narrative of martyred manhood continues a tradition of naming the honor roll of martyrs to the cause of Irish freedom. Guy Beiner argues that the Easter Rising highlights a direct connection to Republican defeats of the past and supports a narrative that claims “our day will come” (Beiner, 378–379). From 1916, Republicans draw a line to the dead of the Irish War for Independence in 1919 and to those who sacrificed during the Troubles. Like the Somme, the Easter Revolt was also a blood sacrifice of young men, but it provides a vivid memory and point of contrast with the Loyalist story of 1916. While Loyalists celebrate the British soldier, Republicans focused on the executed Easter rebels. As one Irish officer wrote in 1916 just before his death, “These men [of the Easter Rising]… will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down—if I go down at all—as a bloody British officer” (Jeffery, 61). Irish Nationalists fighting in World War I had a complicated and tense relationship with the memory of the war and of the Rising, but the Irish War for Independence cemented the connection between the Easter Rising and the long struggle for freedom, calling into question the loyalty of those who fought for Britain.

Memorial The Belfast Republican memorials call on viewers to understand that the dead of the Troubles are part of a larger history, stretching back to the 1916 and 1919 conflicts, but they emphasize the more recent dead in their martyrs’ gardens [Figure 2]. Damian Gorman described the practice of “going on remembering what we already know” rather than questioning the past narrative. This linkage, between the blood shed in the past by Irish revolutionaries and the blood of the IRA became particularly apparent as a result of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 1966. For instance, Seamus Heaney’s poem Requiem for the Croppies (1966) took as its theme the 1798 rebellion in Ireland against British rule, but it was written as a way of commemorating and connecting the Rising’s anniversary to the past. Heaney writes of the futile sacrifice of men killed while “shaking scythes at cannons,” evoking martyrdom of past patriots. Heaney’s men die in fields of barley in Ireland, while the Ulstermen drown in a sea of poppies on the western front (Prince, 731–732).

One of the important details of these memories of conflict is the focus on male experience of loss and sacrifice. Despite the fact that women also participated in the Easter Rising and in the mobilization of wartime society during the First World War, their roles do not figure in the iconography of the murals and the banners. As with much commemoration of national conflicts, war is gendered male, and all experience is framed in relationship to the man as soldier or revolutionary. In this context, the narrative of martyrdom and sacrifice playing out in the images of Northern Ireland centers on meanings of Irish masculinity: what it means to be a patriot in the context of the segregated communities of the North. The Troubles affected whole communities—men, women, and children—but men were at the center of the violence, and they also continue to dominate the “institutions, rituals, organizations, standpoints, and styles of political engagements” in northern Ireland (Ashe, 233). In short, men at war in the 1960s and 1970s used as models men who had sacrificed their lives for a common goal and identity.


The Trouble with the Past

Memory is important to any society and to any nation, and those victimized by years of conflict need a collective memory to explain their losses. Victims do not want to be invisible or erased, so it is necessary to acknowledge the pain and violence of the past. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, official figures place the death toll of civilians, combatants, and security forces at 3,451 people (Coakley, 192). In a small territory such as Northern Ireland, these are significant and traumatic losses in a generation. Add to this unemployment and underemployment, crumbling infrastructures, and continued sectarian geographical divides, and the problem is clear. Also, memory of the past does not remain static or stable in this context. The 1987 bombing of Enniskillen’s Remembrance Sunday service (commemorating the dead of World War I) imbued the 1916 symbols with even more importance. Eleven people died and more than sixty were injured by this attack engineered by the IRA (Beiner, 387). With such contemporary violence tied to the violence of the past, how can Northern Ireland reframe its history?

At Corrymeela, we met educators using American pedagogical programs such as restorative justice and “Facing History” to create new curricula for youth in Northern Ireland. When antagonism and not citizenship is the dominant experience of civic and cultural life, then how does one transcend the divides of fear and suspicion? According to Susan McEwen, who spoke at Corrymeela in 2012, only about 8 percent of children in Northern Ireland were enrolled in integrated schools. One of the central concerns in framing new educational standards is the problem of the past continually invading the present and the future in Northern Ireland. Facing History proponents suggest that using an external case study such as the Holocaust might allow students to rethink questions of us versus them and the legacy of violence in a society.

The overwhelming message that links 1916 to the present and to a longer historical record is one of nationalist masculinity. Armed men sacrificing for a particular view of the nation is the key narrative of this iconography, both for Republicans and Loyalists. Corrymeela’s strategy uses narrative to break down walls. It emphasizes reconciliation and peaceful conversation, but it seemed to me that these programs gained more traction during and after the Troubles with women, who found in widows’ groups and weekend retreats a place to share grief and to work through misunderstanding. The Green Gate project asked women from different backgrounds to bring objects and photographs to discuss. These everyday objects created points of connection for women from different religious communities. For many men, however, the murals in their neighborhood require them to remember the sacrifices of the past and to put their own bodies on the line for the real and imagined communities in which they live. Certainly the murals constitute a cultural heritage of the violence of Northern Ireland’s past, but I wonder if they make the work of reconciliation with past and future combatants more difficult. Corrymeela, as I learned during my time there, seeks to frame a conversation that moves beyond the current containment model. The conflict that marked 1916 and the Troubles has not disappeared nor has it been resolved, but instead it has been contained by Peace Walls, disarmament, and political agreements. Reconciliation is a popular word in 2014 in Northern Ireland, but as those working at Corrymeela know, it is not easily achieved in an environment of suspicion.

Revising the memories of 1916 might be a good starting place for this conversation, especially with the centennial of the Somme and Easter Rising in 2016. Scholars have begun to reclaim the historical record of 1916 from myth. Richard Grayson’s 2009 book painstakingly accounted for the soldiers from Belfast who fought at the Somme. What he found undermines notions of the sacrifice of 1916 as being entirely one made by Protestants. His study records the service of Catholics from the Falls (the 16th Irish) at the Somme alongside Protestants from Shankill, and he discusses some of the reasons why both Loyalist and Republican communities chose to forget the role of the Catholic soldiers in this battle (Grayson, 171, 192).

Just as the history of the Somme is obscured by its mythic status, so too is the history of the Easter Rising. Many Nationalists in Northern Ireland and in the South did not support a revolt in the midst of war. As Michael Laffan argues, “the actions of a small minority forced most nationalists to confront and then respond to a military insurrection which was carried out in their name… moderate views were stifled” (49–50). Many Irish soldiers fighting in Europe were horrified to learn of the revolt and the destruction in Dublin, and in April 1916, the rebels were hardly popular. Sebastian Barry’s recent novel, A Long Long Way, tries to capture the shifting loyalties and feelings of betrayal that Irish soldiers at home and abroad felt in the wake of the Rising. The main character, Willie, tries to figure out who was fighting whom in Dublin and asks a fellow soldier to explain, and he replies:

You got to keep up, William. We were one and the same up to the war breaking out, and then some of us said we would do what Redmond said and fight as Irish soldiers, you know, to save Europe, but a few of them—well, they didn’t want that. You know. A handful really. But the names, you know, I know them well. Some of the best of us. (Barry, 95)

Barry’s use of the ambiguity of the volunteers in this conversation raises the notion of contemporary attitudes toward the war and the Rising rather than the lens of the 1970s for understanding these conflicts. In addition, a generation of gender historians have exposed the ways in which women figured in these conflicts as participants, victims, villains, and heroines, broadening the debate beyond the masculine. Despite these efforts, men appear at the heart of commemoration of the 1916 events and as central to most histories.

In fact, recent years have shown the ways in which 1916 could come to stand for reconciliation rather than division. One physical sign of a new shared iconography of World War I is the Island of Ireland Peace Tower in Messines, Belgium, which was dedicated in 1998. This memorial marks all the Irish dead of the war, and at its opening, both Queen Elizabeth II and the President of Ireland attended (Jeffery, 138–141). This memorial’s opening coincided with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the two events speak to tangible signs of reconciliation with a troubled past. More recently still in 2005, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern proposed commemorations of both the Easter Rising and the Somme for the ninetieth anniversary in 2006, saying that 1916 was “an iconic year in Irish history” that could be reconceived in terms of “shared history” and reconciliation (Beiner, 367).

It is hard to predict if 2016 will be a moment of reconciliation for sectarian communities in the North or a flashpoint for further violence (as 1966 was), but it is true that the broader interest in commemoration of the First World War in the global community might provide a safe context for a re-examination of Ireland’s part in that conflict. Many countries have launched digital projects to rescue the history of the war and to involve the public in its commemoration. Britain’s National Archives has launched “Operation War Diary,” which uses “citizen historians” to transcribe war diaries (operationwardiary.org). The Imperial War Museum is collecting information on ordinary people’s participation in war (livesofthefirstworldwar.org) and the European Union’s website on the war has collected an enormous amount of material on multiple nations (europeana1914–1918.eu). These projects are multi-national because of the nature of the war itself and provide a global context for this important conflict. Northern Ireland has an opportunity to redefine its 1916 moment in this broader commemoration and redefinition of the meaning of the war and its legacies. It remains to be seen whether the North can embrace such a project.


Tammy M. Proctor is Professor and Department Head of History at Utah State University.



Ashe, Fidelma. “Gendering War and Peace: Militarized Masculinities in Northern Ireland.” Men and Masculinities, Vol. 15, No. 3 (2012): 230–248.

Barry, Sebastian. A Long Long Way. New York: Viking, 2005.

Beckett, Ian F. W. The Great War 1914–1918. Harlow, United Kingdom: Longman, 2001.

Beiner, Guy. “Between Trauma and Triumphalism: The Easter Rising, the Somme, and the Crux of Deep Memory in Modern Ireland.” Journal of British Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2 (April 2007): 366–389.

Coakley, John. “The Legacy of Political Violence in Ireland.” In From Political Violence to Negotiated Settlement: The Winding Path to Peace in Northern Ireland, Maurice J. Bric and John Coakley, eds.: 179–202. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004.

Costello, Francis. The Irish Revolution and Its Aftermath 1916–1923. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003.

English, Richard. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Grayson, Richard S. Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War. London: Continuum, 2009.

Jarmin, Neil. Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Berg, 1997.

Jeffery, Keith. Ireland and the Great War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Johnson, Nuala. Ireland, the Great War, and the Geography of Remembrance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Laffan, Michael. “Republicanism in the Revolutionary Decade: The Triumph and Containment of Militarism, 1913–23.” In From Political Violence to Negotiated Settlement: The Winding Path to Peace in Northern Ireland, Maurice J. Bric and John Coakley, eds.: 49–61. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004.

Loughlin, James. “Mobilising the Sacred Dead: Ulster Unionism, the Great War and the Politics of Remembrance.” In Ireland and the Great War: ‘A war to unite us all?’, Adrian Gregory and Senia Pašeta, eds.: 133–154. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Orr, Philip. The Road to the Somme: The Men of the Ulster Division Tell Their Story. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1997.

Prince, Simon. Northern Ireland’s ‘68: Civil Rights, Global Revolt, and the Origins of the Troubles. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007.

Russell, Richard Rankin. “Inscribing Cultural Corridors: Michael Longley’s Contribution to Reconciliation in Northern Ireland.” Colby Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3 (2003): 221–240.

Ward, Alan J. The Easter Rising: Revolution and Irish Nationalism. Second Edition. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2003.

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy