Somme memories

In an Irishman’s Diary this morning, my namesake Professor Brian Walker gives a very simple and moving account of the death of a young soldier badly wounded a fortnight earlier at the Battle of the Somme, and the impact it made on his family. By the standards of the time, the story of Tom McKinney was tragically typical. What strikes me today is the serenity and faith with which his family and Tom himself came to terms with his death. That philosophic approach although by no means universal, must have made life bearable for millions. It was finally gangrene that took Tom off. In the later war, he might have been saved. If only.. In World War Two, it was another Ulsterman, our most illustrious surgeon Sir Ian Fraser, who made one of the greatest contributions to war medicine by introducing an early version of penicillin right to the battlefield itself.

The great interest of the McKinney family today lies in how the history of Ulster runs unassumingly down their line. They were of Scottish Presbyterian stock. They had fled to Ireland after the 1715 Old Pretender rising and were United Irishmen in the ’98. They lived on their substantial farm at Sentry Hill Carnmoney on the northern edge of Belfast until the last of them died out just before the turn of this century. One of them ( Tom’s grandfather?) William Fee McKinney was an enthusiastic amateur antiquarian, a collector of fossils, stories, poems, whose papers are thankfully lodged in the Linenhall library. Brought back to life with family possessions supplemented by other artefacts, Sentry Hill is now open to the public. Visiting it makes you wonder what our generation will leave behind.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London