In a new book by Mo Moulton on the experiences of the Irish in interwar Britain the author remarks that in the 1920s “Armistice Day began to emerge as a high holy day of Britishness” and an occasion “for consecrating a certain kind of patriotic, self-sacrificial Britishness”.
In Dublin the reality of the changed political arrangements was not immediately grasped by many, especially those whose loyalty was British. The signing of a treaty cannot, of itself, be expected to alter long-established patterns of thinking. That sort of change is a more gradual process. So it is hardly surprising that in the 1920s “The Irish Free State was pilloried for its lack of patriotism on Armistice Day”.
The celebration of Armistice Day in Dublin was a sensitive issue for the new government, which naturally felt its advent on the scene was of some considerable significance. “Trinity College was a major focus for observances. Major Sir Nevile Wilkinson, an Englishman who served in the Coldstream Guards in Ireland and then stayed on after 1922, recalled the celebrations there in uplifting terms. Probably writing about 1924, he described the “sea of bared heads which filled College Green and its approaches to overflowing”; they cheered while a “great Union flag” was hoisted over the Bank of Ireland and a “flag of Empire” was raised at the college gates.
These types of politically and emotionally charged events were something the new government could hardly ignore. The unionist associations and symbolism around College Green were especially powerful. The government, which had little appetite for confrontation, came up with a compromise solution. The Armistice Day anniversary could be celebrated in St. Stephen’s Green, but not College Green.
The compromise did not please Sinn Féin. Posters signed by that party called on the people not to tolerate an observance which, they said, had been turned into a “pro-British display”. Disorders occurred at the Stephen’s Green site and one such was described by one of those who was in attendance.
[E]xactly when one was off one’s guard, hats were raised, & the 2 mins. silence entered on, this bomb was thrown, & there were a few shrieks, & one felt an awful movement of the crowd, & then several men’s voices were raised, & the officers in charge speaking through the megaphone called “stand firm.” “Silence” & except for a few sobs of fear & overwrought feelings, & re-assuring words, everyone steadied, & then a quavering voice started (an elderly woman, very shaken) “God Save the King”, which was roared … it was a relief to one’s feelings. Another bomb was thrown, & no one paid any heed. Of course those beside them suffered. One woman’s eyes were injured. One thrower was caught, & beaten heartily by some ex servicemen, the police men at the time had their backs turned! & then he was handed over to the police.
Whatever was thrown, it can hardly have been a bomb in the modern sense. Moulton comments: “Such antics were part of the IRA’s strategy in the 1920s to express its opposition to the Free State and to British influence through what Eunan O’Halpin has described as “gestures ranging from the burning of the union flag and the disruption of boy-scout outings to attacks on jurymen and witnesses in political cases”, activity that was increasingly marginalised by the rise of Fianna Fáil among other factors.
Indeed, in 1926, although British flags were pulled down, the Manchester Guardian claimed that the extremists who demonstrated against Armistice Day were unpopular and that families who had lost a soldier in the war were no longer afraid to wear poppies. In 1932, JM Hone, an Irish revivalist who grew disillusioned with the Free State and its popular democracy, referred to the singing of God Save the King as commonplace at public Armistice Day celebrations in Ireland. But the controversy was not entirely over. In 1933, republicans held what was described as “the largest Armistice Eve demonstration seen for many years in Dublin”; participants made threats against the showing of Union Jacks in Dublin the next day and burned two flags at the end of the meeting. There were some “street brawls … due to the activities of ‘poppy-snatchers’, but the military and police were ordered to keep the peace at the observances themselves”.
God Save the Queen was still sung at the Dublin Horse Show in the late 1940s but appears to have faded away in the fifties when southern loyalist recalcitrance finally ceased to be publicly expressed.