Sunday 22 April 2018

Myers' testimony of truth on the Great War

In his new book, Kevin Myers manages to restore the centrality of Irish efforts in WWI to our national life, says John-Paul McCarthy

This photograph was taken in July/August 1916 at Ploegsteert Wood near Messines in Belgium.
This photograph was taken in July/August 1916 at Ploegsteert Wood near Messines in Belgium.

John-Paul McCarthy

Lutyens decided to honour the missing of the Somme by placing a memorial at the top of Thiepval. We walked up the steps into the centre of his temple and looked out over the surrounding fields. In the warm August sun, we could hear the placid jingle of the church bells over in Pozieres, Amiens and Beaumont Hamel.

Our skyline was made up that day of white, fussing butterflies and rows of young corn that stood sentry-like in the middle distance. Lutyens's vaguely pyramid-like memorial spoke for God's eternal sorrow and recompense at the mass murder that took place in the nearby woods during the Great War.

These sentiments could really only be cast abidingly in sculpted marble. Words are hard to form here as you try to strip these beautiful fields in your mind, and recast them as the pockmarked, moon-like landscape that consumed millions of men. Lutyens's generation comforted themselves with the idea that whatever else could be said, the loved and lost were at least "known unto God". In our innocence and stupefaction that day, we thought of Cardinal Newman's admonition in his Apologia about the need to remember that we, as a species, remain permanently "implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity".

One particular formulation in Kevin Myers' powerful new book, Ireland's Great War (Lilliput) brought at least one reader back to the view from inside the Thiepval memorial. In a bravura chapter on the Irish seamen of the Great War, Myers details what it must have felt like to have been aboard a mortally stricken battleship. If it was hit in certain places, even a big ship turned into a fireball, or what Myers called "a single connected explosive organism".

And that is what we were looking down on from the Thiepval slopes last August, not just a mass grave for all those shivering ranks of grey, but a single connected explosive organism. This idea of connectedness is really the main theme of Myers' meticulous and deeply humane account of the Irish Catholic and Protestant experience in that aboriginal calamity between 1914-18.

Where others before him separated out the various aspects of the Irish experience in the war, Myers brings various issues into startling alignment. The Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain are all arraigned here for the inadequacy of their various responses to the war. The Irish government's high-profile insistence during the Blair era on a pardon for executed Irish deserters is juxtaposed with our first government's fairly grisly attitudes towards executions during the Civil War, not to mention the IRA's targeting of "often unarmed and helpless" RIC men.

Myers also contrasts our contemporary fascination with the Western front with sadder times when even liberal Protestant newsmen like Douglas Gageby tried to shut down debates about the enormous Irish dimension involved. These important, if somewhat abstract, issues help readers orient themselves as they settle down to Myers' fascinating chapters on Athy, Sligo, Kilkenny and Armagh. The Sligo chapter in particular emphasises the sheer scale of the cover-up that was perpetrated after independence. Sligo lost some 400 men in the trenches, but only 19 during the revolutionary years, all but one of those having been despatched by the IRA.

Jack Yeats famously called Sligo his "jumping off point", but in Myers' hands, that county, like so many others, became a kind of vanishing point, home to a disordered and dishonest historical perspective that was all GPO and no Gallipoli for too long. Myers has many registers: sombre statistician, polemicist, military scholar, literary critic, tour guide, public moralist. But he excels not just in restoring the centrality of our war effort to our subsequent national life, but also in analysing how something so enormous could have been obscured for so long. All cultures tend to obscure what they cannot readily cope with. Protestant England saw no angle for centuries in reliving the cultural trauma sustained at the Reformation. And even modern Germany is still unsure about how it should handle the frankly catastrophic brand of anti-Semitism that lay behind all of Martin Luther's advocacy.

Myers recounts various Irish versions of these kinds of evasions. Some county councils voted not to employ war veterans and to even bar their children from access to scholarship funds. As late as 1998, the SDLP and the Department of Foreign Affairs struggled to suppress an "anti-imperialist" shudder when invitations were issued for the Irish to formally contribute to European war memorials like the Menin service in Ypres. (Lacking our bitter integrity, the Indians, South Africans, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis found nothing objectionable).

The sheer power of Myers' advocacy here follows on from a strange paradox at the heart of the book. On the one hand, the common humanity of his subjects has rarely been more effectively evoked, whether the spotlight falls on Kevin O'Higgins's brother, or Tom Kettle or Francis Ledwidge.

But at another level, Myers actually succeeds in making the war seem more distant, and inscrutable.

No one standing in the Thiepval sun today has any real idea what it felt like to swap a sleepy Irish farm life for the trenches. Few today can really comprehend how even so sensitive and tender a soldier as Wilfred Owen could write to his mother after hand-to-hand combat to tell her that he "lost all my earthly faculties, and fought like an angel". Sacrifices on that scale, Myers explains, "could only have been possible if human attitudes and especially those of men, were unrecognizably different from what we know today."

This emphasis on the war's strange distance is in keeping with some of the best writing of the last decade which asks us to take at face value the patriotic slogans of the various home fronts, and the singular lack of a major mutiny in the British or the German lines despite the calamitous casualties.

These aspects of the war are very hard for us to grasp when viewed, so to speak, from the other side of the great anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam-era.

There is nothing strange or distant though about Kevin Myers' personal achievement. His book finally breaks James Connolly's grip on the national conversation. And if only for a second, life has renewed these bodies, and filled "these void veins full again with youth".

Sunday Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life