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The lesson we can learn from this decade of remembrance with Somme and Rising is death does not take sides

The Easter Rising and the Somme took a heavy toll on our country, but we have made progress, writes Claire Hanna

Published 17/08/2016

Sir Edward Carson puts the first signature on the Ulster Covenant at Belfast City Hall in
1912. To the right of the photo is a telegram boy, believed to be Dennis Hanna
Sir Edward Carson puts the first signature on the Ulster Covenant at Belfast City Hall in 1912. To the right of the photo is a telegram boy, believed to be Dennis Hanna

In this decade of centenaries, family history still has the potential to surprise, and this week my dad and I visited a twist in our own family story at the World War One British War Cemetery at Vermelles, near Lens, in the Pas-de-Calais department of France.

We visited grave 111.0.2, that of rifleman Dennis Hanna, service no. 7210, of Royal Irish Rifles (RIR), 1st Battalion, who was killed, still a teenager, almost exactly 100 years ago on August 18, 1916.

We were visiting to pay a debt of honour and respect at the grave of Dennis, who was my grandfather's first cousin. My grandfather, Patrick Joseph Hanna, had no brothers and he and Dennis were close.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. It had been part of family folklore that Dennis, whose family were Catholic and Home Rule supporters, had been present at the signing of the Ulster Covenant at Belfast City Hall on September 27, 1912.

In the famous picture of a granite-jawed and determined Sir Edward Carson signing the first Covenant on a Union Flag-covered table, surrounded by the notables of Ulster unionism, a few places to his side is a boy in uniform looking somewhat out of place. That was Dennis Hanna, then a 15-year-old Post Office telegram messenger boy, delivering telegrams of support for Ulster unionism from throughout the Empire.

The family tale was corroborated just a few years ago when the 1911 Irish Census was put online. There he was, Dennis Hanna, then aged 14, Telegraph Messenger, son of Robert and Annie Hanna, brother of Eliza Jane and Mary Anne, Roman Catholic, 62 Anderson Street, Belfast.

If 1912 was farce for Dennis, 1916 was tragedy. I was talking about the story in a radio interview when a caller asked if I knew what had become of Dennis - I didn't. My grandfather's family would have been strongly nationalist and never mentioned the sad fate of Dennis, like so many of the dead of World War One, and he was effectively written out of family history.

Dennis joined the National Volunteers, and then signed up after the outbreak of war in 1914. Two acknowledged authorities on the Great War period, Nigel Henderson and Philip Orr, with their encyclopaedic knowledge, have filled in some of the gaps of his military career. The RIR 1st Battalion was stationed in Aden, Yemen, at the outbreak of war. Dennis had initially enlisted in the 4th Battalion RIR (initially known as the Royal North Down Militia), but was then deployed to the 1st Battalion, arriving in France on July 30, 1916. He was dead within three weeks.

The RIR was involved in various phases of the Battles of the Somme, and the battalion war diaries give no details of the circumstances of his death, merely referring to the location as "in trenches".

The current decade of centenaries and, in particular, the focus on the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme have, for many, opened a window on family history that was once firmly closed. From my own perspective, the decade from 1912 was a disaster for the people of Ireland, whatever their allegiance, in terms of death, injury and lives blighted.

By 1922, Ireland was partitioned, the country broken economically and socially, and thousands dead or maimed (5,000 casualties on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme). Those events are fundamental to the development of nationalist, unionist, republican and loyalist identities and plumb many of the issues that still drive disagreement and insecurity here. How we mark these anniversaries as a society will shape how we mark the even more difficult upcoming 50th anniversaries of Troubles events in living memories.

We are in some ways emotionally and politically locked into the past, but this island and how we remember has changed. Commemorations of both the Rising and the Somme remembered all those who died, whether at the GPO or in France.

One hundred years on, the short life of my great uncle, Dennis Hanna, for so long written out of history, can now be better understood. I have so many questions about Dennis, not just the circumstances of his death, which was probably awful and, as in so many war deaths, wasteful and unnecessary.

Is there a photograph of him in uniform? What happened to his sisters, Eliza Jane and Mary Anne? Did they marry and have children? All we can do is to commend his soul, and that of all the fallen, to the mercy of God and to remember them, and the wasted humanity, with honour and respect.

Claire Hanna is SDLP MLA for South Belfast

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