Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Remembrance is not a time to ask why others went to fight... it is a solemn sacrifice that we all share

Our complex history defies the simplicities of communal myths and political posturing, writes Gail Walker

The big centenary has certainly been the Great War, the one which might not have ended all wars, but certainly provided the context for much of what went on to happen in the 20th century, at home and abroad (Nigel French/PA)
The big centenary has certainly been the Great War, the one which might not have ended all wars, but certainly provided the context for much of what went on to happen in the 20th century, at home and abroad (Nigel French/PA)
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

They said this was to be the "decade of centenaries" and they weren't wrong. We've had everything from the Plantation of Ulster to the Covenant to the Easter Rising to the suffragettes and even now we're in the middle of the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, as it were.

And there is more history just round the corner.

Still, the big centenary has certainly been the Great War, the one which might not have ended all wars, but certainly provided the context for much of what went on to happen in the 20th century, at home and abroad.

I think it might just be possible to say this now - that particular centenary has been a success. Many people from diverse cultural and political backgrounds here have been able to make surprising discoveries about their family histories, some that complicate otherwise predictable narratives, some that just confirm the human truths at the core of every life.

My own ancestors have long come tumbling out of the past; stepping out of their sepia portraits, breathless and with adrenalin pumping, as if they have just arrived back from the front or dodged that fatal bullet after all. I like to imagine they're as surprised to meet me as I am them. Real people with real lives.

Here comes my great-grandfather whose heartsore little daughter - my granny - secretly slipped the front door key into the pocket of his uniform at Banbridge railway station as he headed off to the Somme, a lucky charm to bring him home again, one of the few to survive.

That was a favourite family story, revisited with affection, unlike the reticence that surrounded the literal unspooling of his ensuing life back home. A life irrevocably changed. A man who nowadays would be seen to be in the throes of PTSD.

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Then there's my great uncle whose Gallipoli adventures always came second in family folklore to his heroics at home. Coming across a bully terrorising a youth, his opening salvo - "I suppose you think that makes you the big fella" - was the graceful prelude to an epic righting of wrongs. Just a few weeks ago, traversing history and time thanks to the internet, I found - and within minutes lost - another great uncle. Dead at just 22. A blood relative who set out from rolling drumlins I know so well for France where he now lies.

There are few families in Northern Ireland not touched by the losses of the First World War. Indeed, even the names of the battles have become engrained in our consciousness: Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, Mons, Thiepval, Ypres, Arras, Jutland, Verdun, Cambrai. They are places that have become intertwined with our communal topography - Waringstown, Enniskillen, Moira, Derry. In fact, any town with a war memorial echoes those names, those images, those emotions.

Of course, there is no one left with direct memories of the conflict, but that doesn't make the links any less imperishable and vital. More than 200,000 men, north and south, fought in the Great War. More than 35,000 died. Those figures on their own give us pause for thought.

It is one of the great sorrows of this benighted place that even the sacrifice of our forbears became a way of looking at our neighbourly civil war.

For Ulster Protestants, the sacrifice was a blood covenant, a symbol of their loyalty to the Empire and their inherent Britishness.

The nationalist response was - until very recently - a mixture of communal amnesia and unease. The thousands who joined from nationalist Catholic Ireland were fighting for Home Rule - a cause eclipsed by the full-bore republicanism of 1916 and the War of Independence.

The Catholic Irish fallen were remembered, of course, by families but collectively they were viewed as being on the "wrong side" of history. Dupes at best.

This politicisation of the fallen played a symbolic part in our own Troubles, with some in the Protestant community using the sacrifice made by their forebears as a psychological support for modern-day unionism and loyalism. Nationalists, in turn, were troubled with the rituals of remembrance, the wearing of the poppy and the laying down of wreaths.

But we have come a long way. We are more willing to accept that our historical complexity defies the simplicities of communal myths and political posturing. A greater recognition that the world little cares who is king of our castle is forcing us to not reject the old certainties, but to re-evaluate, to become more imaginative in our responses.

It doesn't take a Lundy or a West Brit to imagine that their great grandfathers joined up for a mixture of reasons. Yes, many joined to demonstrate the loyalty of Ulster, but many joined out of a more civic patriotism, or because their families had a proud military traditions.

And, in the other camp, who can honestly portray those who fell as somehow "less" Irish? They were fighting for their country as much as anyone.

And many - thousands upon thousands - probably couldn't say why precisely they joined up. Travel? Excitement? A desire to do what their mates were doing? The harshness and dourness of the dump that was early 20th century Ireland for working-class people? Thousands joined not because of Carson and Redmond or Empire or Ireland. They did what they did for a subtle convergence of reasons, impulses and drives. And, regardless, they fell equal in death before German machine-guns.

That simple, brutal fact should be at the forefront of this weekend's commemorations.

They weren't just symbols of this or that ideological belief. It is a kind of affront to those who died to consider them as so many ciphers indicating this or that. They left behind sweethearts, wives, children, friends. They left behind jobs and clubs. Hobbies and passions. Regrets and foolishness. They were every bit as human as you or I. We have perhaps grown too accustomed to viewing the slaughter of France and Flanders as primarily a moral tale. Even away from our wee place, the complexity has been reduced to a simple morality tale about the "senselessness of war".

The causes, the concerns, the unfolding of geopolitics are little discussed today, preferring as we do to see it all as the result of "mindless patriotism" and "belligerent jingoism".

And, of course, those were important social influences. But they were not the only social forces at work. In order to understand we have to allow the dead the full complexity and paradoxes of their times.

In other words, we can't rob those who fought of their full humanity because their motives don't suit ours.

After a near-half century of unnamed civil war, we should know better than most the true costs of indulging in stereotypes and denying common humanity.

We'll probably never see the poppy or even Remembrance Sunday accepted in Catholic Ireland, north or south. Any more than we will see a unionist leader taking the salute at an Easter Rising commemoration in Dublin. Though, you know, neither of those things need be impossible. And we would all be much better off if they occurred.

Which is why this Sunday can be even more significant for us, here, as we emerge into a whole new century - maybe the first one in Ireland - which needn't be spattered by assassinations and bombings and ambushes. It is an opportunity for us to reach out today, to each other, in this contested place, not to justify the past, but to recognise hurt, understand loss, empathise with those caught up and those cut down in the fairly grubby business of history.

We owe ourselves - and our dead of every generation - that much.

Belfast Telegraph


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