The search for grandfathers

Splendid uniforms. Military bands. Tolling bells. Last post. Official laying of wreaths. Marching men and women, wearing medals and decorations. A lone piper. Distant strains of Tom Moore’s “Oft in the Stilly Night,” on a light wind. Yellow leaves falling from plane trees. A thin November sunshine!

Splendid uniforms. Military bands. Tolling bells. Last post. Official laying of wreaths. Marching men and women, wearing medals and decorations. A lone piper. Distant strains of Tom Moore’s “Oft in the Stilly Night,” on a light wind. Yellow leaves falling from plane trees. A thin November sunshine!

Every year, I sit though the BBC’s transmission on television of the ceremonies, spectables and emotions of the celebration of Remembrance Sunday. And every year, it changes little, except that the old men and women get older, and in contrast, the young men, the participants in the world’s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seem to get younger.

It is a poignant, touching ceremony of memory and sadness, and though I now know its familiar format, I never cease to be affected by it. Hundreds of thousands of men and women of Irish birth or direct descent, fought in the European wars of the last century, which it commemorates. And yet, until the 1990s, and the attendance of President Mary Robinson at the religious memorial service at Christ Church, official Ireland did not acknowledge these Irish people.

The acclaimed Irish novelist, Jennifer Johnston, has made this chosen and complicated forgetfulness, a theme of many of her books, some of which have now been included on the Leaving Certificate English course of studies. This inclusion is some indication of a positive reassessment of where we have come from, and where we are going to, especially in the shadow of the Good Friday agreement, which committed us to cherishing all the people of this island and their diverse cultures and loyalties.

In an interview with the “Sunday Times” (published on Remembrance Sunday) Jennifer Johnston said that although “the first World War was before her time Ireland didn’t begin to deal with it until she was in her forties.”

It had been “wiped from everybody’s minds.” War memorials had been neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair and “Catholics with grandfathers and uncles and fathers who fought in that war were sort of intimidated into not talking about it.”

It is now acknowledged that even though they may survive combat, every soldier is scarred by the experience of war. All are, in their own way, casualties. The normal psychological therapy of talking about haunting experiences, was not acceptable in the climate of an Ireland which treated them as traitors. It remained to their grandchildren and sometimes to their great-grandchildren to re-discover the threads of their war-stories: the regiments they served in; the battles they fought in; the far-off graves where they rested; and if they had survived, their lives in an Ireland where they had become non-persons.

This re-discovery was often prompted by finding tattered letters, or faded decorations in the bottom of a long-forgotten box in an attic. It only happened on a national scale in Ireland within the last two decades. “Suddenly,” Jennifer Johnston said “people started to understand that these men were not traitors, which everyone had been told they were. They were men without work who went to England and joined up, not because of the flag. Some of them went to fight for the rights of small nations. That notion had become lost in those years in Ireland.”

Writers like Jennifer Johnston and Frank McGuinness in his play “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” contributed, as the “Sunday Times” said, to a revisionism: a re-assessment, of an aspect of our history which had been ignored, or treated with hostility, because it did not fit the new Ireland’s concept of Irishness. This concept in itself overlooked the many thousands of Irishmen who, since the Wild Geese, and before, fought, frequently on opposing sides, and as mercenaries, in Europe, Canada, and North and South America.

President Mary Robinson supported that re-assessment in her participation in memorial services. President Mary McAleese, in her recent joint visit with Queen Elizabeth to Islandbridge consolidated it, and the remembrance service in Christ Church was the first official duty undertaken by our new President Higgins.

But the huge war cemeteries scattered throughout Europe presents the most salutary of all memorials to those who died, on all sides, in recent years. They not only represent the tragic loss of young lives, but are a barbaric commentary on how we humans sort out our differences. They are anti war in their tangible symbolism.

I recently visited two. Both, a few miles apart, on either side of a thin line on a map, were the final burial places of casualties in the Rhine offensive in World War II. One, outside Maastricht, was the last resting place of 8,000 young men from the United States. In the nearby small German village of Ittenback a few hundred young Germans, Poles and Russians (the two latter probably inducted into the German army) had been hurriedly buried in a field in a wood.

A plaque on the entrance gate of this green and sheltered cemetery said that the bodies had been buried by the US army. In the confusion of terrible battles, there was still time for an act of mercy and an acknowledgement of a common humanity - even amongst enemies.

Identification at the time was impossible, and years later a local order of nuns, undertook research in an effort to put names on memorials. These two cemeteries had another shared characteristic, which was youth. Most were aged between 18 and 23. Few lived until their 30th year.

And there can be even fewer who could have anticipated grandchildren, who would, in some future decades, set out on a search of a grandfather, and what he did in yesterday’s wars.