Published on June 30, 2004 By O G San In Europe
The twentieth century was not a peaceful one for Ireland. In the course of those one hundred years, as well as joining in the general European bloodshed of the two world wars, Ireland also endured its own particular agonies: one uprising, one war of liberation, one civil war and finally one agonisingly long low intensity conflict.

There were many violent days for Ireland in the years from 1900 - Bloody Sunday 1921, the attack on the Four Courts, the Luftwaffe's raids on Belfast, Bloody Sunday 1972, the Omagh bomb. But one day stands alone in that century as a testament to the barbarity of recent Irish history - the 1st of July 1916. Yet the 2 000 Irishmen who perished on that day, eighty-eight years ago tomorrow, did not die in the streets of Belfast or Dublin or Derry but rather, they breathed their last in the mud of northern France.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, a stupid waste of human life so typical of the First World War. British losses on the first day of battle were horrendous but no unit suffered more than the 36th Ulster Division. The division had been formed in 1914 out of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), an illegal paramilitary organisation formed by Irish Protestants to resist self -government for Ireland (known as Home Rule).

The UVF had signalled their willingness to fight against the British army if necessary to achieve this goal. Yet when the Great War began the UVF was subsumed into its putative enemy and became the 36th Ulster Division. Two years later, on the first day of the Somme offensive, the division's men disobeyed orders to march slowly toward German lines, choosing instead to charge the enemy trenches in a headlong assault. Hence the high casualties.

For those of us who are Irish Protestants, the Somme is a by-word for our ancestorr's reckless, even stupid, courage. Unionism quickly incorporated the suffering that day into its narrative. Many unionists maintain that, by their courage and self-sacrifice that day, the men of the 36th secured "Ulster's" place in the UK forever. The Somme to Irish Protestants thus performs a roughly similair validatory role as Gallipoli does for Australians.

But the men of the 36th were not the only Irishmen to perish in the 1914-18 war. Thousands of Catholic nationalists from the Irish Volunteers also joined the British army in 1914, later to fight and die in France. For these men, death in the Great War was meant to secure Home Rule by proving that a self-governing Ireland would still be a loyal member of the British Empire like, for instance, Canada. Their sacrifice, though less concentrated than that of the UVF (the British refused to form an all-Irish Volunteer regiment), was no less significant for it.

However for decades afterwards, the Irish Volunteers who died in France were forgotten, their sacrifice derided or worse still, ignored. It suited the narratives of both unionism and nationalism to overlook the role of the Irish Volunteers during the First World War. Doing so made a complex story much simpler and less troubling.

So for years after the end of the war, the nationalist version of that period focussed, not on the many thousands of Catholics who fought in France, but rather on the few thousand who rebelled against British rule during the Easter Rising of 1916. It was far more convenient for nationalism to portray Irishmen of the time as principled rebels rather than as "collaborators" taking the King's shilling.

On this point, if no other, unionism and nationalism were in complete agreement. For unionists it was useful to forget about nationalist service in the British army during the Great War. For them it was more politically expedient to contrast the loyal men of the 36th Ulster Regiment with the "traitors" of the Easter Rising.

This deliberate amnesia continued almost up to the present day. It is only in the past ten years, with the onset of the peace process, that people on both sides have started to acknowledge the role which Catholic Irishmen played in the First World War. With the pressure of daily sectarian violence having been lifted, people on both sides were better able to reconsider recent Irish history. Of the many changes which the peace process has brought, this one at least, can be welcomed unambiguously.

In 1998 a tower was erected in honour of the Irish war dead at Messines Ridge. The offiicial opening of the monument was attended by Queen Elizabeth the Second and President Mary McAleese, the heads of state of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland respectively. Even ten years earlier, such a joint ceremony would have been quite simply unthinkable. Yet it passed off without protest from either side in Ireland. Anyone with a grain of sense would welcome this act of reconciliation between two of history's most ancient adversaries.

It is only a pity that all but the hardiest Irish veterans of the First World War didn't live to see it.

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