In the decades after 1918, pro-British Unionists, especially in Ulster but also in other parts of Ireland, proudly and respectfully commemorated the sacrifices members of their community had made during the Great War. Among the wider Irish population, memory of the war and attitudes regarding the conflict were more mixed and generally more muted. Armistice Day commemorations in cities such as Dublin, Limerick and Cork were generally well attended in the 1920s and ‘30s, poppies were quite commonly worn in the Free State, and prominent nationalist politicians expressed a certain amount of reserved sympathy for the Irishmen who had been killed in the conflict. In Irish popular, official, and academic memory, however, the experiences and stories the soldiers of the Great War were eclipsed by those of the men who fought against the British Forces in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and in the Anglo-Irish War. British army service was rarely regarded with esteem in independent Ireland and the memory of Irish soldiers of the Great War became increasingly obscure and peripheral as the century wore on. By the 1980s, Irish participation in the ‘war to end all wars’ had been largely forgotten by most Irish people.
In the past twenty years or so, this generalised amnesia has been replaced with a keen and growing curiosity and, today, interest in the First World War is intense across the island. A number of factors combined to bring about this change in mentalities, but the peace process that began with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has had a major influence. Indeed, an ironic but positive situation has emerged in which the shared memory the bloodiest war in Irish and British history has been used to help people move beyond the violence of the much more recent past. The history of Irish commemoration of the First World War has thus been one of fairly continuous re-evaluation and, importantly, re-imagination. This process of evolving remembrance continues to be ongoing and is shaped in the present by the collapse of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and, above all, by the looming shadow of Brexit and the threat of the return of a hard-border between the North and the Republic. This paper will explore the complexity of Irish commemoration of the First World War in recent decades and offer some commentary on the way the memory of the conflict has been used to build bridges within communities and across national borders.