Sunday, January 17, 2016

Men Shall Not Wholly Die - Messines Ridge 1917


Last week I read an interesting opinion piece in a Belfast newspaper that reflected upon one of the most sensitive and indeed politically inopportune of subjects in modern Irish history - the clear reticence of the Northern Protestant to morally equate the Irish Republican dynamics of the modern conflict since 1969 with historic fissures of yore between Unionism and Nationalism on the island.

This issue of course lies at the heart of political stasis in a Northern Ireland at peace yet is barely discussed in mainstream media alike two of the other unmentionables in the afterglow of war - the ongoing and indeed healthy existence of paramafia in Ireland and the clear historical revisionism being practiced by one particular political party with nauseating connivance of the British state broadcaster.

The latter came to a ludicrous and indeed quite appropriately post-modern head last week with one very popular BBC Radio Ulster programme garnering feedback on the creative legacy of David Bowie from a local politician whose party originated in a body who blew up my local Esso garage, Spar supermarket and newsagents in North Belfast the early Seventies. This at a point when Bowie was probably wearing a dress in Beckenham Kent, painting his fingernails and thinking about cool stuff like Kafka, girls and peace.

A timely airing indeed of an immovable historical quandry as the recent spate of Irish political anniversaries now reaches its apogee with the forthcoming 100th year anniversaries of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme - the foundation stones and indeed foundation myths of both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland states.

Back on the 50th anniversary in 1966 - a year which commenced when I was not even one-month old - the tensions engendered in Northern Ireland by Unionist political mischief-making about potential Republican offensives lead to three Loyalist paramilitary assassinations of innocent Protestant and Catholic civilians and the path was thus paved to a quarter-century long conflict three years later.

This year is full of desperately sobering memories for the people of Ireland in regard to the political battles undertaken and the physical sacrifices made in 1916 by Ulster Unionists, Irish Nationalists and Irish Republicans at home and abroad. Yet beyond this milestone - and individual reflection upon both the horror, waste and destruction of the subsequent Black and Tan War, the Irish Civil War and the two civil wars in the North of Ireland - lies another sobering anniversary which conversely embodies so much human potential for a genuine shared future.

Much has been written in recent years about the military heritage of the Southern Irish army regiments of a then British Ireland - Neil Richardson and Kevin Myers' studies are both extraordinary overviews of this hidden history and are highly recommended. The volunteers of nationalist Ireland who served in the British Army may have been transfigured into dupes or traitors by the dictates of a certain foregone or random pathway of history but they were clearly as proudly nationalist as Carson's volunteer army were King's Men and they loved their country as much as any Irish Republican.

As discussed in other posts it was at the Battle of Messines in June 1917 - the military engagement preceding the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) which in turn followed upon stalemate at the Somme - that soldiers of both the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division fought side by side. Irish Nationalists and Ulster Unionists bound together within the genocide of the European working man. The initial bombardment of German lines and the detonation of mine-laid explosives created the loudest man-made noise in history at that point  - it felt like an earthquake in London and was even registered in Dublin. The battle itself to seize Messines Ridge was bloodthirsty on both sides - British military objectives were however secured.

The Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond's brother Willie was Westminster MP for Wexford and joined the Royal Irish Regiment which recruited in Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny.  Redmond had been withdrawn from combat duties on promotion to the rank of Major but actively requested permission to engage in the frontline. The night before this battle - in which he would be fatally wounded - he spoke to every man in the 6th Regiment. The following day he was recovered from the battlefield by Ulster stretcher-bearers from the 36th of whom at least one was a member of the Orange Order. Richardson's history also notes that the Ulster soldiers contributed 100 pounds to Redmond's memorial fund and formed a guard of honour at his funeral. Both Irish Divisions also fought alongside each other later in the year at the Battle of Langemarck.

The 25-year long civil war in Northern Ireland brought nothing to that country beyond shame, hatred, psychotic violence, fear, infusions of bad blood and the destruction of one of Europe's great port cities. Beyond George Best, Van Morrison, Mary Peters, Alex Higgins and James Young few lights shone in the darkness of those wasted years in one of the most physically beautiful parts of the world.

Sadly one hundred years of Irish history in general since Flanders Fields and Sackville Street can be read in a not dissimilarly deflated, sterile and retrograde fashion. Yet for all the struggles and strains of modern day Ireland - from permanent austerity to high levels of immigration - Messines yet stands for something unique and clearly untested. There are of course a myriad of qualifications surrounding the subject but a core dynamic remains of released scope for both a new transcript of history and a literal transfiguration of Irish identity - that unless one wants to forge back to ancient considerations of a Pictish footprint on the Gaelic Irish soil to square an historical circle.

The Island of Ireland Peace Park stands today at the site of the Messines Ridge battlefield near Ypres in the West Flanders province of Belgium. Six hundred miles to the west - where the mighty Atlantic first engages rock and shore - may yet lie a font of decency, warmth and forgiveness in this economically broken and politically lost continent.

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