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John McDonagh (JM) and Martin Galvin (MG) interview Seán Whelan (SW) of the National Graves Association via telephone from Dublin about a 1916 commemoration in Dublin where the names of the British soldiers that were killed during Easter week were read out. (begins time stamp ~ 40:04)
JM: What we’ve been talking throughout the show and throughout the last couple of weeks is the commemorations that are being held around the world to commemorate the men and women that died on Easter week in Dublin in 1916. Now there’s ceremonies around the world – we announced the ones that sre going to be here in New York City – up at Rory Dolan’s on the 24th, there’ll be down in New Zealand, in Melbourne in Australia, in Glasgow in Scotland but there is only one place in the world that is putting up, as a commemoration, the British soldiers that were killed during Easter week in 1916 in Dublin and that is the Free State government or the Fine Gael government that wants to honour those men – and I’m talking about the British soldiers who fought and died in Easter week putting down The Rebellion. And with us on the line from Dublin is Seán Whelan; he’s the head of the National Graves Association and Seán maybe quickly – what exactly is the National Graves Association?
SW: The National Graves Association, John, is a pretty old organisation formed in the 1870’s by ex-Fenians with a view to finding and locating and marking as many patriot graves as possible and then over the years looking after them and then erecting monuments commemorating Ireland’s patriot dead. It’s been going, as I said, since the 1870’s. Many of the monuments we care for now were built in that period and then right through right up to The Troubles of recent times. So we care for around two thousand graves and monuments throughout the island of Ireland – that would be from small plaques on historical buildings up to major monuments like the 1916 plot in Glasnevin Cemetery and Wolfe Tone’s grave and monument in Bodenstown and Roger Casement’s in Kerry.
JM: And now Seán can you explain to our audience how is it the only place in the world that is commemorating the British soldiers that were killed during Easter week trying to put down The Rebellion and then executed the writers of The Proclamation or the signers is in Dublin and is in Glasnevin Cemetery. Can you explain to our audience how did this come about and who approved of this?
SW: Well I call tell you how it came about and who approved it but I certainly can’t explain it. I’d love somebody to explain it to me! But basically the Glasnevin Trust, with the support of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, or initiated by the Labour-Fine Gael coalition government I presume, and it was supported, or at least not opposed, by Fianna Fáil. Now Sinn Féin say they are opposing it now but I don’t think they did an awful lot to oppose it during the phase when it could have been opposed. But basically what they’ve done is they’ve erected this beautiful black marble wall outside the museum within the grounds of Glasnevin Cemetery. Now at Stage One they’ve erected the names of all the people who died in 1916. Now, the National Graves Association, like most groups, would support the right of everybody to commemorate their dead, war dead, in a fitting manner. Now in Glasnevin Cemetery the British Commonwealth War Graves (Commission) actually erected a British monument there about a year maybe two years ago and had a major unveiling of it and we wouldn’t be opposed to that as such.
And all over the world in different countries, for example in Gallipoli, there are many Commonwealth monuments and graves – throughout Europe from different sides and different countries – of course, there’s massive graveyards there, of course, too, and monuments. And in Southeast Asia in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore there are Commonwealth monuments and grave sites. But what’s different about this wall is that it’s erecting in chronological order the names of everybody who died in 1916 and it’s giving equal recognition to the rebels who fought for their country’s freedom and the British soldiers who died opposing them; trying to put them down. Now I think that’s unique in the world, John. I don’t think any other countries have ever done it.
Now I’ve heard in recent weeks people, from government spokespersons, saying: Oh yeah, no – this is common practice – it happens in other countries. It’s here, it’s there. It’s not common practice. What they’ve done in other countries, as I’ve said, countries have allowed other countries who were formerly their enemies during wartime to erect monuments on battlefield sites to commemorate their dead. I don’t believe any other country in the world has ever erected a monument dedicated to the men who fought in their major rebellion for freedom and on that monument giving equal recognition to the soldiers of the imperial force who fought against them – who put them down or who tried to put them down or did put them down. I think that’s unique, John. I think it’s unacceptable and I don’t think it happens anywhere else in the world. And as to explain why? I can’t explain why.
JM: Well Seán also – this is not the end of it because they have plans for the the blank slates that are still left up on that wall. Maybe could you explain now what’s going to be put on the blank slates.
SW: Oh, yeah. In a few year’s time we’re going to have the commemoration for the hundredth anniversary of the War of Independence and their plan at the moment is to do exactly the same thing with those who died during the War of Independence. In other words, the soldiers of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, whose notoriety carries through a hundred years later to today, they will be put up there and given equal recognition to the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army who fought for their country’s freedom. So in other words, the Black and Tans who committed the atrocities in places like Balbriggan and the Auxiliaries who committed the atrocities in Clare and Trim – any of those soldiers who died will be given equal recognition up there with the Irish Volunteers who fought for their country’s freedom. Now, with the Auxiliaries, they were an auxiliary police force recruited from ex-British soldiers who were actually sent to Ireland to terrorise – to conduct a war of terror in an effort to stop the civilian population supporting the rebels. But their own Commander General resigned in protest at the atrocities committed by the men under his command and they’re going to get equal recognition in this next phase of the wall.
JM: Is there any way to stop this? I mean – this is crazy. This is not being done anywhere in the world where there’s commemorations for what went on in 1916.
SW: No, it’s not – no. The Glasnevin Trust is a semi-autonomous body supported by the government of the day – funded by the government of the day. They’ve control of all of Glasnevin and to be fair to them they do magnificent work in the cemetery and in recent years the Glasnevin Trust have done phenomenal work upgrading the cemetery and they’ve actually been given a lot of assistance to the National Graves Association. We have around seventy graves in that particular cemetery and we have several major monuments – and as I said the 1916 monument where I think about eighteen Volunteers who died in 1916 are buried. We’ve recently done major work in overhauling that and we’ve been assisted in that or facilitated heavily by the Glasnevin Trust but basically it’s down to the government of the day and it’s…
MG: …This is Martin Galvin. This isn’t something that’s not being done in any other 1916 commemoration. We in the United States celebrate independence every July 4th. No one says: What about the brave Redcoats who fought against Washington and were killed? I see marathons on TV all the time. (I couldn’t run in one but I’ve see them on TV). They always mention that this was a battle fought by the Athenians against the Persians and defeated them and stopped the Persians from the distance from the battlefield to Athens itself. Nobody says: What about the Persians who died? We should remember them every time we have a marathon. I have never heard of a situation like this where there is a famous battle where a country celebrates those who gave it freedom and they include or feel they must give equal place and honour to those who tried to deny freedom.
SW: I believe you’re right, Martin. I think it’s absolutely unique. I don’t think any other country in the world has ever done it. I don’t think any other country in the world would do it. And aside from – you don’t have to go back that far in history – it would be like in the Second World War expecting the French at say a site where resistance volunteers put up resistance against the Nazis to give equal recognition on their monument to the Nazi soldiers who died in that battle. Or even to the extent of the Twin Towers – expect to put the names of the bombers who died because they died, too? That’s argument of this – that these men are equally dead – that’s the argument that some government people are putting up about this and to say they’re equally dead, too? It’s outrageous! It wouldn’t be considered. Nobody would consider it. And our government here have allowed it. They’ve not only allowed it – they’re responsible for it!
MG: Seán, there seems to be – they go out of their way in 1916 celebrations to say it’s a good thing to have them inclusive, to give equal place to the British, to the Unionists who opposed it and wanted partition and condemned the people in The Rising and they feel that somehow if you have ‘sorry initiatives’ or if you have ‘uncomfortable conversations’, if you keep apologising for this, if you keep giving them a place in this then that’ll help us to unite Ireland and instead, all that seems to be, is taken by the British, taken by the Unionists – instead of reciprocating in any way they just ridicule you and put back any kind of progress towards freedom.
SW: The politicians we have in this country who support or are behind this type of thing do not want a united Ireland. And John Bruton, the former leader of Fine Gael, for example, former European Ambassador to America, who has written extensively in recent weeks saying Redmond should have been supported and condemning the rebels. He, for example, who is head of the group here called The Reform Movement, amongst other things, wants to bring us back into the British Commonwealth. Now those are the type of politicians who are behind this type of thing. There’s an element here, a Redmondite element in Fine Gael in particular, who oppose 1916, who believe it was all a mistake and Redmond could have done everything very nicely and we could have been good little members of the British Empire with a modicum of self-autonomy.
Now, it’s a nonsensical argument. It’s an argument not accepted by the vast majority of the Irish people but we of course support the right of everybody, every group, to commemorate their war dead, fittingly and dignifiedly. But there’s no other country in the world who would erect a monument and give equal recognition to the men and women who fought for their country’s freedom in the major rebellion that is constantly being called the birth of the nation and then on that monument giving equal recognition to the professional soldiers of the imperial power who tried to put that rebellion down. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.
MG: Seán, we’re going to have to leave it at that but I think you’ve given us a good explanation of some of the attitudes, historically, which have led to Ireland not being a free and independent thirty-two county republic.
SW: Okay. Thanks very much, guys.
JM: And if you want to follow-up more on that you can go to nga.ie – that’s the National Graves Association dot ie. It’s hard to believe one hundred years later we’re still debating whether it was right in 1916 or wrong. (ends time stamp ~ 51:51)