Friends in common troubles: lessons of the Somme


‘War is not a personal affair, else there would be no war’: The Battle of the Somme

Few years in Irish history are more potent than 1916. So deeply is that year ingrained in our collective psyche that the number alone is enough to describe it. It needs no elaboration.

Like many aspects of our bi-polar society, 1916 means strikingly different things to this island’s two main traditions.

We have come through the commemorations of the Easter Rising more or less with our dignity intact. Now Easter yields to July 1 and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of one of the bloodiest episodes in European history: the Battle of the Somme.

It would be a mistake to see the two events as separate. The Easter Rising and the Somme are part of the same narrative – a convulsion in world history as it grappled with the transition from autocracy to democracy, and from empire to self-determination.

Unionists have nurtured the Ulster Division’s blood sacrifice on the Somme. It is part of their narrative. History has been crueller to the nationalists who died in the war. Lost in the melee, their deaths were seen as individual acts rather than a collective sacrifice for a common cause. And crueller still, their own people – stunned by the aftermath of the Rising – shunned them.

Private Arthur Baxter, writing of an Irish comrade at the time, said: “When he had his leave from France, he daren’t go home, you know. There was a place in London where the like of him went. He told us he’d be killed if he went home, being in the British Army, you see.”

The new Ireland that rose from the ashes of Easter 1916 wrote these soldiers out of history. Only in recent years has there been a coming to terms with their lives and loss.

Many Irishmen on the front had torn loyalties. Wearing a British uniform, their cause was Irish home rule. Among them was the poet Francis Ledwidge who died in Passchendaele. His lament for Thomas MacDonagh is one of the most powerful poems of the Rising. “He shall not hear the bittern cry/in the wild sky, where he is lain.”

Like the Rising commemoration, it is important that the Somme anniversary is treated with respect and marked with dignity. It must be used as an opportunity for healing rather than further division.

In that context, the decision by deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to accept an invitation to visit Flanders and the Somme next week is a welcome one.

For too long we have been trapped by history, this visit represents an opportunity to be liberated by it; to reach an understanding of the enormity of the Somme and its impact on the lives of those who fought and died there, those who survived, and their families.


Martin McGuinness: Deputy First Minister

At a most basic human level the Somme is a story of loss and man’s inhumanity to man. On the first day 19,240 allied forces soldiers died, and more than 35,000 were wounded; 141 days later more than a million allied and German troops had been injured, and over 300,000 lay dead.

But at another level the Somme is part of our common history – unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican, militarist and pacifist. By understanding the past, we gain insights that give us a better understanding of today. If we are to take full advantage of that, we need leaders who are brave enough to take risks and who are willing to face up to the past.

The Queen demonstrated that eloquently during her historic visit to the Republic. In the Garden of Remembrance she set the bar high when she had reason enough to demure. Her own family has faced tragedy in Ireland. Mr McGuiness too has reason enough to turn the other way. That he has taken the more difficult course is to his credit.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with the words of a private who fought at the Somme. Arthur Wrench wrote these words in November 1916. “Coming through Mailly, I saw a wounded kilty of the Argylls walking arm in arm with a wounded German and passing the coffee stall there. One man ran out with a cup of coffee which he handed to the Argyll. He in turn handed it to his stricken companion after which they limped on their way together, smiling. Enemies an hour ago, but friends in their common troubles. After all, this war is not a personal affair, else there would be no war.”

“Friends in their common troubles.” I can think of no better description of us today.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on May 27 2016

A nation once again: Easter and the 1916 Rising


A sovereign nation: leaders of the Easter Rising 1916

Easter Sunday is one of the most potent days in the Christian calendar, and for someone brought up as a Catholic in Ireland it assumes an even greater significance. In a nation where, for so long, Church and State walked hand in hand, the religious symbolism of the day was amplified by its association with an insurrection that is seen as the foundation stone of Irish independence.

Politics is dangerous when placed in the hands of poets, and the Easter Rising was shaped by people with a deep understanding of symbolism and its potency. That is one of the reasons why its memory has endured.


The Resurrection: Piero della Francesca

One one level the rising itself was an abject failure. The British mobilised, and within a week it was quashed. Pearse surrendered, and his men followed suit. In a grim yard in Kilmainham prison, he and his fellow leaders were executed by firing squad. Soldiers shot by soldiers.

But Pearse forged a narrative that became the foundation story of the Irish State, a narrative that (for all the revisionism of recent years) persists – as we have seen in the commemorations in Dublin this week. And it is a myth from which successive generations have drawn sustenance. Irish paramilitaries, freedom fighters, terrorists – call them what you will – justify their deeds because of what happened in 1916.

We will never know what went through the minds of the 1916 leaders in their final hours – though we do know what they wanted us to think.

It’s there in Pearse’s final letter to his mother. This a document every bit as considered as the Proclamation of an Irish Republic read on the steps of the General Post Office.

“We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own,” he wrote. “Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland’s history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations. You too will be blessed because you were my mother.”

The dignity he displayed in the face of death must be seen as evidence of his conviction that he had struck a mortal wound at the heart of the Union; that he was right and would be vindicated.

Remembered by posterity, he and his fellow leaders have been.

Quite what Pearse would have made of the Ireland which emerged is anyone’s guess. The political class that took power after the War of Independence and the civil war was not up to the task. Generations of Irishmen and women were failed by them – betrayed it could be said. The Church, pernicious and conservative, held the forces of progress at bay. It controlled education, health and social policy. The Archbishop of Dublin was a de facto member of the cabinet.

Poverty and discrimination was fine as long as it was Irish poverty and discrimination, not British.

And worse, the Republic turned its back on the north.

There is a passage in the Proclamation – redolent of the American Declaration of Independence – which says: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The Republic’s failure (and the failure of republicans) to come to terms with the realities of Ulster Unionism, and to demonstrate religious and civil liberty in action, became a mirror image of unionist isolationism. Both – unionists and republican – fostered the conditions for the appalling violence that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late sixties, and which was ‘settled’ only after some 30 years on another Easter – Good Friday 1998.

History is full of what ifs – what if the first world war hadn’t happened, what if the British had not reneged on home rule, what if the rising had happened as planned on Easter Sunday, what if the British had not responded in such an insensitive way… but we only have the history we have. Brutal, messy, contradictory history. A history where fact and fiction are intertwined, and where the heart can often rule the head.

Emotionally it relatively easy for someone from my background and upbringing to see the Easter Rising as a noble act, and to be seduced by the poetry of the revolt. ” I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge/My two strong sons that I have seen go out/To break their strength and die, they and a few,/In bloody protest for a glorious thing.” And I feel the tug.

But in my head I know that – like most conflicts – the pain is more often borne by the innocent. The majority of those who died in Dublin that fateful week were civilians. I remain convinced that there are better ways of effecting political change.

And somewhere, in the mind of someone who finds it difficult to come to terms with the human notion of god, the Catholic in me is conscious that Easter Sunday marks the day when a good man – a revolutionary in his own way – demonstrated that life can transcend death. Blessed be the peacemakers.



Is Ireland still fighting its own 100 years war?


Over the top: the Battle of the Somme 1916

They say history never repeats itself, but historians often do. Much the same can be said for journalists. We love a big story. Breaking news is still the stuff of newspapers, it sets pulses racing and fingers dancing across keyboards.

But not every day is a big news day, and needs must. In the absence of anything else we fall back on old news, repackaged. The anniversary is a brilliant excuse to fill the airwaves and to decorate acres of newsprint.

It will hardly have escaped your notice that, had he lived, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 this month – inconveniently he died in 1998, but the marketers never let that get in in the way of a retrospective. The 80th anniversary of Elvis’s birth was marked with a ‘new’ release where he was backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra karaoke style.

This past year we were invited to remember the battle of Waterloo, VE Day and the anniversary of Churchill’s death.Those of a literary disposition will know that the Irish ambassador to the Court of St James has tweeted a quote from Yeats every day this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and  why not.

This coming year there are a couple of significant ones: the 20th anniversary of the Docklands bombing at Canary Wharf and the 25th of the release of the Birmingham Six among them. But the year will be overshadowed by two events that had a profound effect on history. In a strange way they are intertwined.

The Easter Rising exploited that familiar Irish republican political observation: England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. With all its resources focused on the battle against Germany in France, England was certainly in difficulty in 1916.

The justness of the First World War is less clear-cut than the second, but the Kaiser was not a particularly pleasant man, nor was he a champion of the principles of the civil liberties we now expect of an enlightened modern leader. Right might well have been on England’s side, but we must remember history is suspect, it is written by the victors. (Irish history is the exception to that rule, ours is a victims’ narrative.)

For the mass of Irish people, while there may have been a general desire for independence, there was no imperative to strike a blow for freedom in 1916. The leaders of the Rising had no mandate (they earned it retrospectively).

Needless to say, there is competition for the position of ‘rightful heir’ to the legacy of 1916, and there is a risk that the commemorations of the rising will reopen some of the wounds in Irish society that appeared in its aftermath.

The greater risk is that they will exacerbate the rift in political cultures in the north of the island – a rift which shows little sign of healing it is sad to say. And here we come to the second great anniversary of the year.

Countless Irishmen lost their lives on the bloodied fields on the banks of the Somme in 1916. Their blood sacrifice is as entrenched in loyalist history and mythology, as that of the 1916 leaders in nationalism’s. The loss of so many in the Ulster brigades has fuelled the sense of betrayal at the actions in the GPO and done much to sustain the bitterness that underscores so much of our politics.

Yet many nationalists lost their lives in the same battle – Redmondites trusting their willingness to fight for the crown would secure home role.

Is it too much to ask that this year be seen as an opportunity to reflect on past events rather than glory in them; to recognise that events are usually more complex than we remember them; and to come to a realisation that history belongs in the past and not in the present?


In finishing, I would like to add my own tribute to the journalist Liam Clarke who died this week. I met Liam when I was a rookie working at the News Letter and the Sunday News in the 1980s. To me then he seemed like a seasoned hack but he cannot have been much older than me. He was intelligent and never afraid to challenge orthodoxies. In a political system where there is no real opposition, journalists like him are a critical part of the body politic and he will be missed.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on December 31 2015


Rebels without applause: unionism and 1916


Stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Gaol where the Easter Rising leaders were executed

It’s been some time since I read the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland”. When I was a boarder at St Colman’s College in the 1970s, there was a copy on the wall on the way to the chapel. It was not required reading, but it killed the boredom on rainy Saturday afternoons. At one point I could recite chunks of it.

Later, on a school trip to Dublin, we visited Glasnevin Cemetery and stood beside the graves of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders as awe-struck as if we were at a sacred shrine. Earlier we had been to Kilmainham Gaol where they were shot – James Connolly so badly injured he had to be tied to a chair. It was heady stuff.

Outside the college gates, the conflict of that earlier age was still being played out: the sound of bombs rumbling like thunder over the drumlins; a gun-battle in the distance, the bright lights illuminating the police fortress across the Clanrye River. 1916 seemed quite close then: the wounds still raw, the conflict unresolved, the Gordian Knot of Britain and Ireland’s tangled relationship as tight as ever.

It would be nice to think that we have moved on. It is almost 100 years since the rising. But, as this week’s row over unionist involvement in the commemorations has shown, it’s not yet history.

England’s difficulty might well have been Ireland’s opportunity; but on the fields of France Irishmen were dying, many motivated by a desire to secure Home Rule, others fighting for the opposite cause.

Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party said: “I would find it very difficult to participate in any event. I had relatives who were away fighting in World War One, so as far as I’m concerned, the men who took part in the Easter Rising were traitors.”

‘Traitor’ is a tough word, and the 1916 leaders certainly did not see themselves like that. But its use is a sign of how raw things still are this far into the peace process.

Reconciling unionism to 1916, and all that it represents, is made less easy by one of those coincidences of history. The grandsons of the ‘Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ have their own centenary to focus on next year.

It does not help that the Proclamation has a none-too-subtle reference to the Great War. The nod to “gallant allies in Europe” was a provocation, as was Roger Casement’s decision to hitch a ride to Banna Strand in a German submarine. As with De Valera in the Second World War, republicans then were out of step with world history.

Ever the optimist, former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley notes that many loyalists are now “engaging in history”. There is debate.

“Hopefully, we can create a template where we can deal with what I call the ‘combustible’ period of Irish history in a way that allows engagement and discourse.”

One of the first things a student of history is taught is the importance of not imposing today’s values on primary sources from the past. But it must be said that in spite of its guarantees of religious and civil liberty, and the commitment to equal rights, the Proclamation would not pass today’s inclusivity test. Britain is made to shoulder all the blame.

For all the injustices, misunderstandings and blunders of the troubled relationship of these two islands, most now recognise that Britain – and more importantly the British people (on both sides of the Irish Sea) – are very much part of the solution.

The heavy-handed militaristic language of the Proclamation is decidedly unhelpful today, in much the same way as association with the UVF tarnishes nationalist views of the Somme.

It is not beyond ingenuity to find a way of framing the events that led up the Rising, the Rising itself and the bloody aftermath, in a way that allows the involvement of both traditions and none. But it is hard to see how this is possible, other than a recognition that the wounds are still too deep to allow anything other than an honourable agreement to differ.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”, wrote Yeats. If only.

If we must mark the Rising and the Somme, let’s do so with the cold eye of a historian rather than the romantic eyes of a republican former lord mayor, a loyalist politician, or a naïve teenage schoolboy doing what he could to get through a miserable Saturday in a boarding school.

  • This piece appeared in The Irish News on October 30 2015

How Our Man in London plans to sell a rebellion


The Easter Rising: a terrible beauty and a challenge in the 21st century

Pity Dan Mulhall, the urbane Irish ambassador to the Court of St James. A press aide to Dick Spring during the turbulent but dramatic nineties, Mulhall has gone on to a distinguished career in the diplomatic service.

London needs safe hands. Even in the best of times, there’s a rough edge to the relationship between the two countries and Mulhall is well versed in the intricacies of Anglo-Irish relations.

The ambassador is obsessed by the work of WB Yeats, so the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth has been a gift. One of the finest writers in the English language, Yeats speaks to the world, not just Ireland. He has become one of Mulhall’s primary tools for soft diplomacy, as subscribers to his twitter feed will know only too well. Yeats scholars watch out, the ambassador is after your job.

The poet has been in the news this week for other reasons. But the controversy about whether the bones buried in Drumcliffe belong to him or a French peasant doesn’t much matter. Yeats’s spirit resides in his visionary writing.

From Yeats it is just a step to 1916, and the men who were martyred by the British after the Easter Rising.

In his remarkable meditation Easter 1916, Yeats coined one of the most dramatic couplets of the English language: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”

Next year sees the 100th anniversary of the Rising, it coincides with an equally potent one for the Somme, one of the sorriest of sorry battles in the First World War. Irishmen died there too in their thousands – nationalists fighting in the forlorn hope that war would yield to home rule, and unionists fighting on the same side for the opposite outcome.

Irish anniversaries have a habit of turning out badly. The Twelfth is a constant reminder of that. But at least with the Twelfth we sort of know where the hot spots are going to be and the likely results.

The Rising anniversary is a different matter. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that it is fraught with risk. The Law of Unintended Consequences will almost certainly come into play. Like relatives fighting over a will, many claim to be the rightful inheritors of the flame lit that fateful Easter morning. In addition to internecine rivalry, there is its impact on the tensions between the two traditions here.

History has a way of flattening things out, and the 1916 rebels are now seen as being players in Ireland’s seamless transition to nationhood. It was bumpier than that. Whether the Irish government can claim direct line of descent is a matter of debate. Nonetheless, it has taken on the job of commemorating the event, not just in Ireland but globally.

It is Mulhall’s job to sell it to the British. Like selling ice to Eskimos, it’s a thankless task. This week in his blog (check out the Irish Embassy website) he confronted the question: how does the rising commemoration relate to Britain? Interestingly, he sees it in the context of the “extensive Irish involvement in World War 1”, and details exhaustively Ireland’s involvement in remembrance events.

“Just as involvement in the First World War had a major impact on Ireland, so too the Rising was an important event in British history and in the remaking of relations between our two islands.” You have to admire his pluck.

“It was the beginning of a new era between us as neighbouring States and it is important that we take this opportunity to look back at a century of Irish independence and take stock of where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.”

Unsurprisingly, he plans to focus on “the future direction of relations between our two countries and on the contribution Irish people have made to British life over the years, notably in the cultural field”.

He hopes this will lead to “greater awareness in Britain of the intriguing complexities of Irish history”. Few will dispute his observation that: “Proper reconciliation comes when we can grasp and appreciate each other’s perspectives”.

But I doubt the English will be fussed. The residents of Kensington and Chelsea have long since reconciled themselves to the Easter Rising. The intellectuals will enjoy their seminars, speeches and canapés in the Irish Embassy and no doubt a member of the Royal Family will be persuaded to raise a glass to the memory of Pearse and his comrades.

But what’s the strategy for Northern Ireland where the outcome of the Rising has not yet been resolved?

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on July 24 2015