A Response To Plunkett Nugent And His Reflections On 1916.
Let me first preface my remarks with caveat that this is not some Slugger O’Toole style war of words between anonymous bloggers. I have met, shared a meal with, and respect Plunkett Nugent. I have actively listened/read his reflections on 1916. I agree with him that revisionists, in an attempt to denigrate the moral integrity of the Easter insurgents, have tried to create a comparison with the Ulster Protestants of the 36th (Ulster) Division, and the ‘sacrifice’ at the Somme.
I would however respectfully challenge the assertion that the motivation of the men who ‘went over the top’ on the 1st July 1916, were doing so as ‘mere cannon fodder enticed to their death by a sectarian desire to trump democracy in Ireland’ or to thwart Home Rule. The remarkable military achievement of the Ulstermen on the Somme, and its cult like legacy can be attributed to four factors.
First, they were inspired just as devoutly to the British Crown and Empire as the Irish Republicans were to the aspiration of an Irish Republic. There is no hierarchy of moral national superiority here. Irish Nationalism, as a political ideology had failed miserably to win or engage the hearts and minds of Protestants in the north east of the island. (And there are good lessons to be gleaned in exploring why). The British Empire they claimed to be loyal to had called in the markers, and like the young Australians at Sulva Bay in 1915, or the Newfoundlanders one mile up the line at Beaumont Hamel, these young lions were not going to be found wanting in raw courage.
Secondly, the Ulster Division was unique in the Somme attack in that the men generally disobeyed orders and actually charged the German positions. They won the race against the machine gunners emerging from their dugouts. They captured their main objective, the Schwabben Redoubt and stormed the German second line. Indeed as they approached the German third line they were so far ahead of their schedule they were caught by their own artillery.
Thirdly, the breakthrough achieved by the Ulsters was sadly not emulated by the rest of the British Army. They held out gallantly against wave after wave of German counter attacks. Ammunition and water ran out, but that Ulster Protestant siege mentality sustained them. The war graves mark where they breached the German lines and the vital ground they defended. They hold it still.
In the aftermath the sheer devastation of a 5,000 + casualty lists began to filter back to Ulster like a malaise. It was never in my childhood referred to as a ‘blood sacrifice’. However Ulster had simply done her duty by the British Empire, and there were expectations that this Lockean contract would be reciprocated. In the partition that followed, with the creation of Catholic theocracy bereft of social justice, there was a sense that the Unionist stance had been vindicated. In reply to the Green Free State, unionists wittingly created the Orange State.
The men of the 36th Ulster Division came home without ceremony or adoration. Many bore mental scars of PTSD that were simply not appreciated or understood. I recall the matron of a nursing home complaining that one veteran was ‘troublesome because he cried at night and wet the bed’. Geoffrey Beattie argues that many Somme veterans suffered from the depression of Survivor’s Syndrome.
There was of course a formal and UK/Commonwealth wide 50th commemoration in 1966. Veterans were reviewed by the Queen at Balmoral Showgrounds and some made a pilgrimage back to Thiepval. But in popular culture they were being airbrushed from memory by the sexier heroes of the Battle of Britain, Monty’s Desert Rats and D Day. No comic books or Ealing Studios production illustrated their battles. The scale of the causalities inhibited any triumphalism and many veterans like George Hackney (I do recommend his unique photographic exhibition at Ulster Museum), came to reject war and all forms of militarism.
Finally, When I visited the Somme in July 1986, the Ulster Tower had fallen derelict and the only official ceremony was at the British Somme Memorial. But the long war changed all that. Ulster Protestants needed heroic myths to sustain them. The latter day UVF claimed the Somme as a battle honour, the Orange Order changed pre-Twelfth church services to ‘Somme Parades’. It even commissioned its own ugly memorial to blot the tasteful landscape at the Ulster Tower. Thousands made pilgrimages to Thiepval with politicians scrambling to be in the official photographs. Bemused and bewildered elderly veterans were plucked from obscurity and belatedly made folk heroes .
Thus, the Somme was changed from a sombre and costly duty, and elevated to the status of heroic blood sacrifice. A sacrifice - unionist politicians reminded us - that needed to be sustained and renewed in the struggle against Irish Republicanism. In doing so they took the language of the Easter Rising and plagiarised it. The two unrelated events were reduced to crude political comparison.
If I have one request to Plunkett and other Republicans it is that we seek a political generosity that respects both the living and the dead amongst our former enemies. To sit down and explore how we shift from presenting conflict (killing each other) as a the contextual issue, and begin to overtly promote a critical respect for the principle that in 21st century Ireland, social justice can be pursued without recourse to violence.
To create together a psychological repertoire that accepts, respects, humanises, and personalises those neighbours who do not share our religious confession, political aspiration or cultural expression. This ability to develop cross sectarian working class solidarities was not possible during the conflict.