Belfast Telegraph

Why today I remember my great-uncle who emigrated for a new life in Canada but ended up dying on a French battlefield

By Lindy McDowell

Le Canada est né ici, said Justin Trudeau. Canada was born here. The Canadian prime minister was speaking this week at Vimy in northern France at the site of one of the bloodiest clashes of the Great War.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge began on what was Easter Sunday, April 9, 1917. It ended exactly 100 years ago today.

The battle holds a special place in Canadian history because this was the first time different Canadian military divisions had fought together under one command.

For many this was the moment post-colonial Canada truly shook off British rule. Canada was born here.

And around 3,600 of her sons died there. The Battle of Vimy Ridge holds much the same place in Canadian hearts as the Battle of the Somme does in Northern Ireland.

I know all these facts about Vimy because my great-uncle was one of those who died.

His name was William McIlvenna and he came from a place called Cloughogue which is described as being near Gracehill in Ballymena. He was 31-years-old, the son of William and Rose McIlvenna.

There is a picture of him on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial website. I've seen it many times before. My sister has a copy. What is interesting about it is that it's a coloured photograph - someone has coloured it in by hand.

He has the same greyish green eyes as my late father. I really do think he looks a bit like my da. Or maybe I just want him to.

I know so little about the young man who gazes wistfully from the frame. I know from what little family history we have that he emigrated to Canada before the war. Ireland at the time would not have offered a youth from a poor background much by the way of opportunity.

He was 31 when he died. Was he married? Did he have children? I don't think so. But I have no idea.

He joined the Canadian Infantry, Alberta Division and he fought at Vimy Ridge. But he didn't die during the battle. He died on June 3, 1917. He is buried in La Chaudiere Military Cemetery, which lies just to the north west of Vimy.

What happened to him between the date of that battle and the date of his death? Did he die in a military hospital from his wounds? More hauntingly, did his parents back in Ireland know?

That wistful photograph of him - he really doesn't have a warrior's scowl - is described as having been taken during pre-embarkation leave in Glasgow. So close to home. Did he get back to his mother and father that one last time?

We know so much about our collective and tribal history in this part of the world (or think we do) and so little about our own family history.

I always thought when I heard about William crossing the Atlantic for a new life, and then returning to fight and die in France, that his was an unusual story.

But it wasn't. Very many of those who fought and died for Canada at Vimy Ridge came originally from Ireland. And very many of those from what was not yet Northern Ireland. You can find their names on various commemorative websites. Bleakley, Cupples, McFadden, Keenan, Laverty, McNeice, Watt.

Lost first to their families and then to history.

There is no lesson from Vimy or from any of this. Or if there is we never learn it anyway. World leaders still square up to each other today.

How strange our world today would seem to William. But I like to think that he would be happy that he is remembered still. Even after a hundred years.

And to some extent, still mourned a little too.

That wistful looking young man with the green eyes.

William McIlvenna 1886-1917.

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