Belfast Telegraph

Remembrance Day: Those who fought were farm hands, mill workers, and office clerks - Protestant and Catholic

By John McCallister

A century ago this month, there were very few - if any - people across Europe able to sense that the continent was a mere nine months away from an unimaginable catastrophe: The First World War.

When the First World War is mentioned now in 2013, what images come into our minds? Perhaps it's faded memories of a school history lesson.

Maybe it's a documentary using old newsreel images of the trenches. Or maybe it is just that final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

That changes, however, amidst the silence of a cold November morning - Remembrance Sunday. The sombre silence speaks in a way words cannot match.

It's as if for those few minutes, despite the passing of the generations, we 'get it' - the sacrifice, the loss, the trauma, the courage.

The silence is not filled with thoughts about politics, whether the politics of 1914 or of more recent times. Remembrance Sunday is about human stories.

This Remembrance Sunday I will again stand at war memorials in my constituency - in Newcastle and Rathfriland. I will be thinking of young men from the close-knit, predominantly rural community of South Down who went off to fight in the fields of France and Flanders.

They were farm hands and mill workers, grocers' assistants and office clerks. And they were Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist.

One of the tragedies of the 'us-and-them' approach to politics in our society is that it has often blinded us to a more complex and more human past than we imagine. Everything gets interpreted in an 'Orange v. Green' lens.

When we do this to the story of Ireland and World War One, we fail to respect the dignity, the courage, the sacrifice of those who left our villages, towns and cities to fight in far-off fields.

The First World War was an experience we shared together in Ireland and in this particular part of Ireland. The names on war memorials throughout the length and breadth of this island tell that story - surnames of Irish, English and Scotch origin mingle, without distinction or difference.

When we allow Orange or Green politics to cast a shadow over Remembrance Sunday, we lose sight of the human stories of sacrifice, loss, trauma, and courage that should be at the very centre of how we as a society reflect on and remember the First World War.

As we approach next year's centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, let's use the sombre silence of this Remembrance Sunday to shape how we together can reflect on, remember and respect the stories of Catholic and Protestant, unionist and nationalist who fought in the trenches and - in many cases - did not return to the island that was their home.


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