Sunday 20 October 2019

The 'traitors and gullible fools' blotted out of history

German prisoners help to carry British wounded back to their trenches after an attack by 16th (Irish) Corps on Bavarian units holding Ginchy in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Photo: PA
German prisoners help to carry British wounded back to their trenches after an attack by 16th (Irish) Corps on Bavarian units holding Ginchy in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Photo: PA

Dermot Bolger

One hundred years ago yesterday, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, death claimed over 2,000 Ulstermen from the 36th (Ulster) Division, as they advanced across no man's land to capture a German concrete bunker. Soon, the survivors were forced to retreat back across that quagmire killing zone of barbed wire and mutilated corpses in which 60,000 men had died or were maimed in one horrific day.

The 36th Division had a further 3,500 men injured during that suicidal advance and bewildered retreat on July 1, 1916: the carnage which affected every village within Ulster caused the date to become enshrined in Unionist mythology as a symbol of Protestant resistance.

Death similarly stalked the Southern-born Irishmen of the 16th (Irish) Division, who made their Somme push in early September, 1916. A random hit killed the Irish poet and nationalist MP, Thomas Kettle, whose body was never recovered. Kettle was one of 1,167 southern Irishmen from the 16th Division who died during their push at the Somme. Unlike their Ulster counterparts, their deaths formed part of no national mythology.

Kettle's intellect had made him a close friend of James Joyce and of the pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who abhorred the violence of the Easter Rising but whose brutal execution during it propelled him - by ironic default - into our pantheon of martyrs.

Four days before his death, Kettle bestowed upon his infant daughter, Betty, a deeply moving poem:

'So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,

And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,

But for a dream, born in a herdsmen shed,

And for the secret Scripture of the poor.'

Kettle possessed a cosmopolitan European prospective on how Ireland needed to evolve a new European identity, but when he wrote this poem for his daughter, he was ensnared in the Somme mud, anticipating the inevitability of his own death.

He knew the Easter Rising in Dublin had altered everything. While his fellow poet and fellow nationalist, Thomas MacDonagh, would be remembered as a patriot, Kettle knew that (despite his equal passion for Irish independence) his name would be accompanied by whispers of having died as a traitor in the wrong uniform.

This is the tragedy of Irish poets of that war, be it Kettle at the Somme or Francis Ledwidge at Ypres, whose face has been condemned to the limbo of being forever young. Like thousands of fellow Irishmen, Ledwidge and Kettle were condemned to another kind of limbo.

Rupert Brooke's death in World War One immortalised him at home. This is true of the Canadian, John McCrea, whose poem, 'In Flanders Fields', features on their $10 bill. Their posthumous reputations are simple, with no legacy of divided loyalties. The Britain to which poets like Siegfried Sassoon returned might come to nurse ambivalent feelings towards how 'great' that war was, but they were never viewed as traitors.

In contrast, the Southern Irish experience of the Somme was blotted out of our national collective memory, with the Irish who fought there herded into two simplistic camps. The Ulster 36th Division were seen as Protestant freedom fighters, with the inconvenient truth that large numbers of Ulster Catholics fought and died there being ignored in the North.

In the South, our Somme dead were seen as pro-British traitors or gullible fools. Indeed, the Irish poet Michael O'Loughlin only recently discovered that his great grandfather died at the Somme: a killing field into which Irishmen were herded for a complex variety of reasons. One was simple economics. So many Dublin trade unionists lost their jobs after the 1913 Lock-out in Dublin and enlisted to feed their families that three cheers were raised for Jim Larkin in the trenches.

Hugo Hamilton sums up our collective national amnesia, about the emotional wounds left by battles like the Somme, in the title of his memoir, 'The Sailor in the Wardrobe'.

It refers to a photograph of his father's father in British World War I naval uniform which Hamilton's father (who hated everything British) kept locked in a wardrobe, unable to throw it out, while desperate to pretend it didn't exist. Unlike the majority of Southern Irish victims of the Somme, Kettle's circle of friends ensured that he was remembered and - although it was controversial - a small monument to him was eventually unveiled, with no official ceremony, in St Stephen's Green in Dublin.

But many of the Somme's Irish victims suffered the same fate as O'Loughlin's great grandfather in being blotted out of history.

The current 1916 commemorations have been fascinatingly varied, with forgotten figures (like the dead children whose lives Joe Duffy superbly recreated) finally allowed to be part of the varied narrative of our history.

It is time to also recognise that the Somme was a national catastrophe.

On this day, a century ago, and in the months that followed, villages across Ireland went into a state of shock each time that most unwelcome of sights appeared: a telegram boy holding an envelope. Before women even opened those envelopes, they knew that their husbands and sons were about to be rendered into the past tense with a curt, standard expression of regret.

Dermot Bolger is Writer in Residence at the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks

Irish Independent

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