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Ireland, the Great War and the Geography of Remembrance.

Ireland, the Great War and the Geography of Remembrance

Nuala C. Johnson. 2003. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 0521826160 (hc) US$60.00. 204 pages.

A recent article by Kevin Myers (2004) in the Sunday Telegraph reminds us of the ongoing controversy surrounding the memory of the Great War in Ireland. Myers reports on the fundraising campaign for a memorial in Waterford, a small city in the south of Ireland, to be raised in honour of Private John Condon, a 14-year-old Waterford soldier of the Royal Irish Regiment who was killed in action near Ypres in May 1915, and the youngest known battle casualty to have served in British forces during the conflict. Myers' article laments the "amnesiac" attitude toward the war that has prevailed for many years in the Irish Republic, but suggests that Condon's memorial will help to bring the past back to the present. In Ireland, the Great War and the Geography of Remembrance, geographer Nuala C. Johnson of Queen's University of Belfast probes these complexities, focussing on the relationship between social memory and space in Irish representations of the war, and arguing that Irish efforts to collectively remember the war during the twenties and thirties were almost constantly at odds with broader national and political realities.

Johnson suggests that Irish memory of the Great War developed in "stages," both in the theatrical as well as the temporal sense (page 13). The thematic chapters of this short book examine in turn the interplay between geography, landscape and memory; visual representations of the war in the form of recruiting posters; war memorials and rituals of remembrance; literary texts; and the memory of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. The structure and organization of Johnson's chapters reflect the various stages or spatial contexts within which Irish people created memories of the war, although the temporal junctures between each phase of the discussion are somewhat less orderly. While the chapter dealing with recruiting posters demonstrates the complicated political context in wartime Ireland, it is less clear, for example, how these media shaped collective memory. As well, the transition from a war-time context in the second chapter to the postwar situation in the third is abrupt, and lacks an intervening summary of Ireland's role on the battlefields against which readers might juxtapose Johnson's discussion of postwar commemoration. The final chapter, examining commemoration of the Easter Rebellion, jumps forward in time as far as 1966 and 1991, the overall effect of which is a loss of balance, since the rest of the book rarely ventures beyond the late thirties. The book is well-illustrated, and the diagrams of urban land-scapes are particularly useful, but an overall map of Ireland might also have been included for the sake of North American readers. Johnson's prose is unnecessarily dense in places, with a tendency toward clumsy sentence structure.

In some instances Johnson generalizes or extrapolates meaning beyond the plausible limits of the evidence. She contends that postwar parades and ceremonies "disguised the fact that the war was a sequence of conflicts fought on different sites, at different times, across Europe" (page 78). This may have been literally the case, since a parade could not possibly reenact four years' worth of battle experience, but it is also true that contemporary observers of such spectacles would have been more or less familiar with the nature of Ireland's military involvement in various theatres of war. As well, Johnson differentiates between monuments to the Easter Rebellion, which she interprets as connected more closely with national identity than personal bereavement, and war monuments constructed by other countries, allegedly with the sole purpose of remembering the dead (page 160). This is something of a false dichotomy, since there are many monuments on the Western Front that achieve both ends. The Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge, for example, bears the names of fallen soldiers, but is more widely known as the country's most important national war monument. Likewise, the massive American monument built on the heights above Chateau Thierry symbolizes the supremacy of the nation, with scarcely any allusion to the human cost of the war.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is a useful addition to existing studies of the Great War and collective memory, such as Jonathan Vance's Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (University of B.C. Press, Vancouver, 1997). Johnson succeeds in demonstrating the complexity of postwar memory construction in Ireland. Given the intricate nature of its subject matter, perhaps the structural incongruities of the book were ultimately unavoidable.


Kevin Myers, "A brave boy will be honoured, 90 years late," Sunday Telegraph, 14 March 2004.

Andrew Iarocci, Doctoral Candidate in History, Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3C5.
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Author:Iarocci, Andrew
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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