Wednesday 29 January 2020

We must learn to slay a few of our myths

It's our duty to shape the future by challenging ideas concerning identity, writes Trevor Ringland

Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et decorum est'
Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et decorum est'
CONFLICTS: First World War poet Wilfred Owen used vivid imagery evoking the horrors of the conflict when he wrote 'Dulce et decorum est' during a recovery period in hospital

Trevor Ringland

The First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori", or "How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country", while he was recovering from shell-shock at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh. The poem's vivid imagery evokes the brutal realities of conflict and its impact on ordinary soldiers.

It provided the generations of children who first read it at school a better understanding that war should always be a last resort. Owen's words also expose how dangerous it can be to allow patriotism to cloud our vision of the consequences of conflict.

Craiglockhart is now part of Napier University in Edinburgh, which my son attends. Part of the building is preserved to commemorate its connection with war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. It's a good place to reflect upon how losing a loved one before their time can affect a family.

A couple of years ago, for an hour or two, my wife and I believed that a tragedy had befallen one of our children. Fortunately, that was not the case, but it brought home to us how profoundly our lives would have been changed and provided an insight into the darkness which would have come over us.

As part of a police family during the Troubles, I am all too aware of the consequences of loss on ordinary people. I heard the story of a young police officer who tried to identify which family members of the victims of a loyalist bomb might be strong enough to identify their remains. With their clothes on, it was as if the victims were sleeping. Without their clothes the brutal impact of the bomb was exposed. And then there was the smell of burning flesh.

Likewise, I've heard the descriptions of a human skull after the magazine of an AK47 rifle was emptied into it during a republican murder. The floor was crunchy and sticky with blood and fragments of bone. Then there was the victim who was blown apart by an IRA bomb. After searching nearby fields, my father's young officers found the head and, although later as he recounted the story to me his response was grim laughter, his eyes were not laughing.

In every conflict situation it's worth asking, does violence really solve our problems or does it compound them? Taking another human being's life is an abnormal experience. Only certain people can live with the consequences. Soldiers' eyes will usually darken when they're asked about their experiences of war. The conflict in Northern Ireland took a terrible toll on perpetrators as well. The Republican Brendan Hughes drank himself to death, while the loyalist killer Billy Hunter could not live with what he had done and committed suicide by setting himself on fire; they are just two examples.

Wilfred Owen's poem might have been called "Dulce et decorum est pro patria necare" or "How sweet and fitting it is to kill for one's country". It's a title which would be considered grimly ironic, except perhaps by a psychopath who enjoys killing or a sociopath who likes to encourage others to do so.

There are other consequences too when we chose to take a violent path. The Troubles caused society to be divided more deeply and 20,000 young people ended up before courts, with many in prison. The leaders who encouraged their actions have rarely given unconditional apologies. Across these islands our past is a history of failed relationships. For that reason, we have a duty to shape the future differently, by challenging narrow ideas about identity and lazy assumptions about violent events. I'm not sure that we can say, as residents of this island, that we've done everything we can as a society to ensure that our tragic history is never repeated.

It's something to bear in mind this year in particular, as we commemorate some of the bloodier episodes of our shared past; the Easter Rising and the First World War. When we reflect upon our history, can we honestly say that there was not a different way of doing things?

I contend that there are many examples which demonstrate that there was and we can learn lessons from our mistakes. It can only benefit these islands if we slay a few myths about the actions of previous generations, to ensure that such tragic occurrences never happen again.

A century on we have unfinished business on this island and that is to build good and constructive relationships between its people. Because of our history we may always remain constitutionally apart but that should not prevent us being together on so many common issues.

Belfast solicitor Trevor Ringland played rugby for Ballymena and Ireland. His father was an RUC sergeant.

Sunday Independent

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