| 2.7°C Dublin

Proud Gay's poignant journey of discovery

A question might occur during My Father's War, tonight's RTE1 documentary in which Gay Byrne learns the story of his father's service as a British army soldier in the First World War: Why wait until now?

The most influential broadcaster in Irish history could, at any time during his lengthy career, have put the subject of how the 200,000 Irishmen who fought in The Great War were airbrushed from the officially sanctioned history – the insular, dishonest, rabidly anti-British version taught in schoolbooks – into the public debate.

The answer, of course, is Gay didn't wait. In 1988, he incurred the wrath of the Gaeilgeoiri, the nationalist fanatics and the blustering bar stool republicans when he announced on his radio programme that he'd be wearing a poppy on the coming Friday's Late Late Show to mark the 70th anniversary of the Armistice.

He relented, reluctantly, on the advice of his brother Al, who was active in the Royal British Legion and feared Gay's action might impact on fundraising. At the end of My Father's War, a moving film directed by Ruan Magan, Gay gets to wear the poppy with justified pride at the Menin Gate war memorial in Ypres, Belgium, the site of two bloody battles.

Gay's father, Edward, a cavalry soldier with the 19th Hussars, was involved in both of them, as well as the Battle of the Somme, and was one of the 500 cavalrymen who, mere weeks before the end of war, charged headlong into German artillery and machine-gun fire at the Battle of Cateau in France.


Edward Byrne wasn't among the 100 men killed that day. He returned to Dublin and worked at the Guinness brewery, which with Jacobs was one of a handful of companies happy to give former soldiers jobs.

But like so many of the Irishmen who survived, he paid a personal price. When visiting the old family home in Rialto, Gay recalls his father regularly "roaring and flailing", waking the whole street, in the grip of nightmares.

Much of the story's details are new to Gay, who regrets never having had "an adult conversation" with his father about his wartime experiences. Those men, though, simply didn't talk about it. "I have no memories of these," he says when his sister shows him their father's medals. "I should know what all of these things are about, but I simply don't."

My Father's War, which takes Gay from Dublin through the British military archives and to cemeteries and ghostly battlefields in Belgium and France, is an emotional journey in search of one man's story.

It's a universal story, however. As a historian says tonight, there are innumerably more people descended from the 200,000 than from those who were in the GPO in 1916 or involved in the War of Independence.

My grandfather, James Travers, also served and also survived – his health destroyed, his short life plagued by nightmares ever after (my daughter, Sarah, has made an audio documentary about him, called Our Soldier, which can be heard on Soundcloud).

The film is exceptionally good at reminding us of the historical truths smothered and suppressed by the self-serving nationalist creation myth. Archive film shows tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Dublin, union flags fluttering, to welcome men returning from The Great War.

But after the general election of 1918, when the Sinn Fein of de Valera won 73 of 105 seats, the mood soured and men who'd fought in a war for freedom supported by the majority were accused of betraying their country.

Gay recalls that his father always disdainfully called the Easter Rising "that local skirmish on O'Connell Street". He wasn't the only man or woman of his generation who felt that way – and there are plenty of descendants of that generation who know who was really betrayed.