Reflecting on Ireland’s National Day of Commemoration…

Ireland’s National Day of Commemoration was first held in 1986 at the Garden of Remembrance in central Dublin, but later moved to the Royal Hospital, in Kilmainham in the city’s western suburbs.

This year, for the first time, it moved out of the capital and was held at Collins Barracks in Cork. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that it may move to other regional centres.

The event is held annually on the Sunday nearest July 11, the date of the Anglo-Irish Truce during the War of Independence. The introduction of the annual ceremony followed years of controversy over how the State should remember those from Ireland who served in the British forces.

In 1983, the Defence Forces were represented at the Royal British Legion’s Remembrance Sunday service in Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, but this was criticised by retired generals and the Fianna Fáil opposition. An all-party committee recommended the introduction of the Day of Commemoration, to remember both those who fought for Irish independence and those who served on the British side, as well as those from Ireland who fought in foreign wars, such as with the American army.

The initial event was boycotted by both the Fianna Fáil leader, Charlie Haughey, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Bertie Ahern, but once the event was transferred to Kilmainham, it ceased to be controversial.

Each year, the President lays a wreath at the request of the taoiseach, and the event is attended by senior politicians, judges, members of the Council of State, diplomats, representatives of local authorities and of course relatives of those being honoured.

Veterans’ groups, such as the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen and Women, and the Royal British Legion, attend each year, and in some years there are representatives present from Northern Ireland.

A religious ceremony forms an important part of the event, with music from the Defence Forces, and the changing nature of the ceremony reflects the increased diversity of Ireland. In its early days, the prayers and readings were delivered by the Catholic and Church of Ireland Archbishops of Dublin or their representatives, the Presbyterian Moderator and Methodist President or their representatives, along with a rabbi and on occasions a Baptist representative.

In 1994, for the first time, a Muslim representative joined the ceremony, there was a gap of one year before this resumed in 1996 and every year since has seen Muslim involvement. Some years later, the Orthodox Christians began to be involved, with participants varying between Greek, Russian, Romanian and Coptic Orthodox.

For close on a quarter century, then, the format was five Christian denominations – Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist and Orthodox, who joined with each other in giving a joint blessing – along with the Jewish and Muslim representatives.

However, there have been further changes in recent years. In 2018, for the first time, a humanist representative gave a reflection, and since 2019 representatives of the Hindu and Buddhist communities have also featured.

It was striking, watching the July 9 event in Cork, that only two women were involved in the reflections, the representatives of the humanists and Buddhists.

Representatives of Christian traditions have made clear they are not ‘praying with’ those of other faiths, but praying separately in the presence of each other, so that their involvement in no way waters down their witness to Christian beliefs on the nature of Jesus Christ – this was very clear from the prayers offered this year by Catholic Bishop Fintan Gavin of Cork and Ross.

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