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Belfast priest 'so proud of his ancestor who fought for British' at the Somme

In the second of a series of special interviews in the days leading up to the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Fr Gary Donegan, rector of Holy Cross church in north Belfast, tells Ivan Little how his great-grand-uncle Bob West was decorated for conspicuous bravery at the front and why he is planning his own pilgrimage to the battlefield.

Published 29/06/2016

Fr Gary Donegan addressing residents on the streets of north Belfast
Fr Gary Donegan addressing residents on the streets of north Belfast

One of the most high-profile Catholic priests in Belfast, Fr Gary Donegan, has revealed that a relative fought at the Battle of the Somme. And the Fermanagh-born cleric, who received death threats from dissident republicans in recent weeks, has said that his family ties to the Great War resonate profoundly with him.

Fr Gary said he was proud of his great-grand-uncle Bob West, who served with an Irish regiment at the Somme and was later decorated for his courage.

The priest said that honouring the sacrifices of the men who fought and died at the Somme was a must.

He added: "When you look back and see the slaughter of so many young men in such horrific battles like the Somme I think the least that people can do is to remember them."

Fr Donegan, who's been rector at the Holy Cross church on the Crumlin Road since 2008, said he had attended a dinner in Belfast City Hall on June 24 to commemorate the battle and its casualties.

The priest also went to a civic dinner a few weeks ago to mark the Easter Rising.

It was an event that grabbed the headlines after Irish President Michael D Higgins, who was due to be the guest of honour, pulled out of the dinner after unionists boycotted it.

But Fr Donegan said: "I think it's important for people like me to be seen at all these things."

Bob West, like Fr Donegan, was from Newtownbutler. He survived the Great War, but died before the priest got a chance to meet him.

Fr Gary said he thought he was typical of thousands of people across Ireland whose family backgrounds were complex.

"I have a Protestant aunt and uncle and cousins, and there are many people like me on this island who are a mixture of everything."

He said the civic dinner had been a great way to mark the centenary of the battle.

"It was done through music, words and plays and was very interesting.

"Our history is so complex, if you research it at any stage you will finds parts of that history which will surprise you."

He said that, unlike many nationalist families who shunned mention of relatives who fought for the British Army, he had always been told about his great-grand-uncle. "Not only did he fight at the Somme, but a nephew of his was in the Second World War," he explained.

"That was a part of our extended family which was always recognised.

"Bob was always remembered with great fondness.

"Whatever he witnessed, he never spoke to anyone about it. Obviously, he was so traumatised by those events he did not want to recall them, if possible. However, we never felt that we should shy away from what he did. In fact, it was the opposite.

"I would have loved to have heard about his experiences first-hand.

"At my dinner table in the City Hall, many of the guests recalled that their ancestors had also refused to talk about what happened to them, or what they saw.

"It seems to have been a common thing among those who survived the war.

"They were so affected by the horror of it all, particularly the Battle of the Somme.

"Any war has its difficulties and those who serve in them can end up with conditions like post-traumatic stress.

"It is particularly sad that men who were affected in that way during the Somme were later accused of cowardice and taken out and executed. In fact, they were simply ill."

He says his "road to Damascus" moment as regards realising the horror of war came during a trip to France with schoolchildren from Scotland.

"When you are a child growing up, most of your imagery of war is black and white," he said.

"But, as we drove through a certain area, there were fields of poppies which were so colourful. I realised that could have been the last thing that so many of those who died at the Somme and elsewhere in the First World War would have seen.

"It was real and raw for them and I suppose the contrast between the beauty of something in nature like a flower and the horror of war struck home to me.

"Each of those flowers represented someone's father, husband or brother who perished there."

Fr Donegan said that he hoped to visit the battlefield, either this year or in the near future.

"Another moment that struck home with me was watching the Blackadder series on television. There you had those Oxbridge-educated geniuses in the programme, trying to invent ways to stop having to go over the top, and then you realise that, in reality, men flung themselves out of the trenches at the sound of an officer's whistle knowing they could well be cut down within moments, and they would do that time after time.

"It was the contrast between the hilarity of the programmes and the pathos of what actually happened that struck a chord with me.

"Many of those men who joined the Army may have done so because of poverty at home, or for adventure, or just to see the world. What happened to them is almost beyond comment. As has often been said, war is old men sending young men out to die."

Fr Donegan said he welcomed the greater appreciation nowadays of the role played by both Catholics and Protestants in events like the Somme.

"I attended a lecture given by the Ulster GAA at Queen's University, which outlined how former players were involved in various wars. It was a real eye-opener for many of the people in the room," he explained.

"In many cases these men were shunned in their home cities and towns and villages when they returned from the war in spite of what they had gone through.

"We all come from a complex background and I am very proud of my great-grand-uncle Bob West and what he did. As a priest, or pastor, I don't agree with war, but he went and did what he did, and I am the last person to deny what he did.

"His courage was immense. And I also remember that the devastation of what he experienced was so great that he could not comment on it."

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