Tuesday 22 October 2019

Michael Kelly: 'The poppy is a divisive symbol in Ireland but we can still honour the fallen - from all backgrounds'

The lapel flower or the absence of one shouldn’t stop us remembering the fallen from all backgrounds. Stock image
The lapel flower or the absence of one shouldn’t stop us remembering the fallen from all backgrounds. Stock image
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

FR Willie Doyle was a Dublin-born Jesuit priest. He volunteered to serve as a chaplain to the tens of thousands of troops - Irish and Catholic - who had signed up to fight for the British during what would become known as the Great War.

Of course, the only thing "great" about the conflict was the magnitude.

This week, as we mark the centenary of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting, it's sobering to think some 16 million people lost their lives while an estimated 20 million were left maimed or injured.

In all, around 200,000 Irishmen fought in the war. More than 50,000 of them lost their lives.

Fr Doyle's wartime letters home give a graphic and often heart-breaking insight into the suffering endured by the young men in the muddy trenches of Flanders fields.

In a letter dated April 1, 1916 - just weeks before the Easter Rising in Dublin - he wrote about surveying the landscape after a particularly bloody confrontation: "A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out; one a German judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen - friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together."

Fr Doyle added: "They were decently covered compared with the next I saw; a handful of earth covered the wasted body, but the legs and arms and head were exposed to view."

He seemed quite a young lad with fair, almost golden, hair: "'An unknown soldier' was all the rough wooden cross over him told me about him; but I thought of the sorrowing mother, far away, thinking of her boy who was "missing" and hoping against hope that he might one day come back."

Fr Doyle was amongst those men who never returned. In fact, his body was never recovered - he fell, according to contemporaries, having run "all day hither and thither over the battlefield like an angel of mercy".

The story of the wartime chaplain is provoking fresh interest around centenary commemorations. His was a story unacknowledged and untold for a long time. Like so many Irishmen who fought in World War I, it quickly became a hidden history.

The brutal suppression of the Easter Rising by the British army in Dublin and subsequent thuggish violence of the Black and Tans meant there was little love for the British military machine in Ireland.

It seldom mattered that many of the young men who joined the war effort did so at the prompting of leaders of nationalist Ireland to fight for the rights of small nations.

Huge efforts have been made in recent decades to put right the historic wrong that was amnesia about the role of nationalist Ireland in the Great War.

Nowhere is that more acutely felt than in Northern Ireland, where war commemorations are often still seen as the preserve of the unionist community.

Where I grew up in west Tyrone, the British army was a constant presence in my childhood.

I was eight years old when Aidan McAnespie - a man from a neighbouring parish - was shot dead by a soldier on his way to a GAA match. Only this year, it has been announced the soldier will be prosecuted.

Even a simple journey to school or to Mass meant negotiating a series of checkpoints. Most squaddies were nice lads from grim towns in the north of England doing a job.

Others were brutes and louts who revelled in making life difficult for the local nationalist community.

Stories are legion of hastily arranged checkpoints near Catholic churches on a Sunday morning that would quickly be dismantled once people had been left late for Mass.

Football matches often had to be abandoned as teams were unable to arrive on time due to large tailbacks at seemingly pointless checkpoints.

To say there was no love lost between local residents and the army would be putting it mildly.

Which makes this week's events at the headquarters of Gaelic games in Tyrone all the more remarkable.

Despite a ban on members of the GAA joining 'crown forces', many young club members swapped the fields of Tyrone for the Western Front.

Local historian Dónal McAnallen has painstakingly researched the issue and found many GAA members from Ulster who signed up for the British army during the war.

Among them were at least a dozen Tyrone GAA members, such as three men from the Brian Óg club in Cookstown - Patrick Cory, Robert Lawless and Louis Boyle.

Cory, who joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was killed by shell fire at Bethune in July 1915; Lawless, a member of the same regiment, was killed at Festubert in the same year.

It's another piece in the jigsaw and helps navigate a complex and sometimes contradictory historic picture.

Too often in the North, the past is used as a battering ram to denounce or humiliate one side or the other.

What the history of the Great War shows is that people from both communities often have more in common than they expect.

Of course, Armistice Day commemorations remain hugely controversial.

The red poppy, which has become a potent symbol of unionism and Britishness in the North, doesn't just honour the dead of World War I.

It remembers the soldier who shot Aidan McAnespie in the back, and it commemorates the members of the parachute regiment who killed innocent Catholics in Ballymurphy and on Bloody Sunday in Derry.

It's a symbol most northern nationalists will never feel comfortable wearing.

It's not about refusing to honour dead soldiers. It's about marking the fact that Britain's military presence in Ireland also brought huge heartbreak to many communities.

While the poppy honours that, it will always remain a divisive symbol.

But the lapel flower or the absence of one shouldn't stop us remembering the fallen from all backgrounds.

Michael Kelly is Editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper.

Irish Independent

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