There was warmth in the air – one of those rare April days in Ireland. The primrose-sprinkled verges were crowned with golden whin blossom, alive with birdsong. It felt like spring had resurrected Nature. A perfect afternoon to take photos. I’ve never had much patience with a camera, but my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted a few snapshots for her school project. She and her classmates had been given a history assignment to occupy them over the Easter break. The students could choose their own topics on condition that these had some ‘local’ relevance. Being a bit footloose in our area, my daughter found herself stuck for inspiration. Her Bosnian dad’s idea of the First World War as a possible theme was initially met with interest… then teenage scorn. While she was aware of WWI’s significance from her summers in Sarajevo, wasn’t the link to our locality rather tenuous? Or was this due to Ireland’s selective amnesia?
An online search and a visit to the town library suggested the latter. A local historian had documented recruits from our county who had fought, across Europe and beyond, between 1914 and 1918. Many were killed in action in France and Belgium. Lads from along the coast, who’d joined the navy or who’d served as mercantile marines, perished in German torpedo attacks. Others faced death at Gallipoli. Or they succumbed to disease – pneumonia and, in one case, ‘malaria in Greek Macedonia’. Most were in their twenties, some in their late teens. Those who made it back to Ireland returned to a different country. Irish Volunteers who’d enlisted in the British army, in pursuit of Home Rule or adventure or just to escape poverty, didn’t get much of a welcome in a nation that, by then, was striving for independence. As their stories show, the experiences of the demobilised were often hushed up – the trauma they’d endured became their own dark secret. In keeping, perhaps, with a culture in which men didn’t talk about psychological problems. But, in the Ireland of that time, it was also politically prudent. Remembrance was something of a taboo. Still, there were reminders – graves and plaques etched in memory of the fallen.
In the village down the road from us, a stone cross stands at the junction of the short-cut to the motorway. At a glance, it looks last century but its Celtic style harks back to an illustrious era of Irish ‘saints and scholars’. Although I pass it regularly, I’d never known that this monument is inscribed with the names of locals who were slain in the circumspectly entitled ‘Great International War’. Guarded terms were typically used for conflicts involving Ireland’s nearest neighbour. Gaelicised sculpture was a means of repatriating home-grown warriors whose imperial service, at a time of insurrection, left them in history’s limbo. Irish tradition is more associated with commemorating rebels. But the complexity of any attempt at national recollection is emerging. It’s almost one hundred years since the ‘Easter Rising’ – an event which came to define modern Ireland. And already there’s debate as to how it’ll be portrayed, revised, and ultimately branded, in advance of the centennial shindig in 2016.
This anniversary will, no doubt, provoke controversy. During our president’s recent state visit to Britain, it was confirmed that a ‘senior member’ of the English monarchy will be invited to attend celebrations in honour of those who proclaimed an Irish republic, from the GPO in Dublin, on Easter Monday, 1916. The queen’s forebears would’ve likely disapproved and some revolutionary ghosts mightn’t be too impressed, but things have changed. ‘Changed utterly’… to recycle Yeats’ oft-repeated words. Aside from the pomp and media hype, the deepening royal and presidential rapport marks another step towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation. But achieving peace has proven an arduous process. And there have been brutal decades in between.
Not only in Ireland. The incident deemed to have started the First World War – the assassination of the Habsburg archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie – took place in Sarajevo. Through the subsequent century, that city has been dealt an unfair share of suffering. Although intrigue still surrounds the teenager, Gavrilo Princip, who secured an infamous spot in history on 28 June 1914. Was he a terrorist or a nationalist, an idealist or a just a hapless misfit? His posthumous labels have blurred. Like those ascribed to the Irish soldiers caught up in the ensuing carnage. Fusiliers such as Francis Ledwidge – the poet who, in Heaney’s tribute, struggled with a torn identity ‘from Boyne water to the Balkans’ before he was blown apart, in Ypres, in 1917. Traitors, heroes, suckers for propaganda… or were they mostly young guys who had few other chances? And those who’ve ‘died for Ireland’ – or anywhere else – in the years since then? Should they be viewed as freedom fighters or fiends? It always seems a question of perspective.
Whatever the ‘cause’ of conflict, youth gets conned or is conscripted into it. Young people are ruined in the resulting violence. But their lives are seldom remembered in jingoistic tales. Syria’s children are the forgotten ones of this millennium. There are no cenotaphs to these unknown juveniles. Only the heartbreak of families plunged into a human-created hell. Senseless… Or does it follow some evil logic? History tells us that war’s puppeteers are those who tend to gain from it. And, irrespective of its outcome, they can be tenacious – clinging to power, even chuckling with their former enemies. Often that’s how truces are agreed and treaties signed. The past, though, teaches more than this. It urges us to listen to the survivors. To those who defied the hate-stirrers, those who resisted oppression. To support all who take risks for justice today – the unsung history-makers of the world.
The title of this piece is taken from ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ by Francis Ledwidge.
For more poems and information please see the website of the Francis Ledwidge Museum: http://www.francisledwidge.com/
See also: ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ by Seamus Heaney: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-francis-ledwidge/
‘Easter, 1916’ by W. B. Yeats: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/247616#poem
‘The Unreturned Army: County Louth Dead in the Great War 1914-1918’ by Donal Hall, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005.