The complex issue of how we remember ALL those who died in conflict…

The issue of remembering those who died as a result of war or conflict is a very complex one.  John Hewitt, one of our local poets even cautions using the word “remember.”

“For the people of my province and the rest of Ireland

Bear in mind these dead:

I can find no plainer words.

I dare not risk using that loaded word, Remember,

for your memory is a cruel web

threaded from thorn to thorn across

a hedge of dead bramble, heavy

with pathetic atomies”.  (Neither An Elegy Nor A Manifesto)

Throughout the month of November, there will be many occasions, some private and some public when those who died in war or conflict will be remembered.  Here in Northern Ireland, there will be numerous Remembrance Sunday services in various Protestant churches as well as state organised Remembrance events.   Some Loyalists on Armistice Day (11th November) will visit graveyards to remember those killed during the world wars and in the conflict here.

Catholics, however, whilst observing the second day of November as All Souls’ Day and indeed the month of November with special emphasis on remembering and praying for the dead, seldom publicly remember those killed in war or conflict. Republicans whilst remembering and honouring their “patriot dead” keep Easter Sunday as a special day to remember, as well as holding different local events throughout the year to remember their dead.

In short, the issue of remembering those killed during the world wars and in various conflicts including our so called “Troubles” is a divisive one.   Each year, the symbol of the red poppy at some point in November generates an acrimonious debate.  In this article, published on the day after All Souls’ Day, I want to raise the issue of remembering ALL who died as a result of conflict.  In Catholic liturgy, Requiem Mass acknowledges “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:25), and therefore we all depend on the mercy of God and we leave judgement to God alone.

When we describe those who have died as a result of war, different adjectives are used such as the “war dead”, “glorious dead”, “patriot dead” or “military dead” to mention some.   It seems that even in death we are divided.  When this is explored further I would suggest we are implying at least implicitly that some of our dead are worthy and some not, or in simpler terms some are good and some bad.  In terms of our conflict, for some of us a police officer or soldier killed in the line of duty was a hero or heroine and deserves to be remembered at Remembrance events, whereas a paramilitary volunteer killed in the process of planting a bomb or carrying a weapon, was a terrorist deserving condemnation.   Yet as it happens, there will be people from different sections of our community who will talk about a soldier, police officer or paramilitary volunteer as making “the supreme sacrifice”.   It becomes very contentious whenever paramilitary volunteers are remembered publicly.

A few months ago, I followed some of the reaction to a post in social media by Helen Smith from the PUP “remembering with pride” Harris Boyle and Wesley Sommerville, who were members of a UVF gang killed when a bomb they were planting in the minibus in which the Miami Showband was traveling detonated prematurely.  Three members of the band were then shot dead by other members of the gang.    The post caused a considerable Twitter storm with some comments being personally abusive to Ms Smith.  There was also a strong reaction at the time of the 20th anniversary of the Shankill bombing which killed 10 people including Thomas Begley who was carrying the bomb.  Various events were organised to remember the 9 people killed in the bombing; the issue became contentious whenever some Republicans unveiled a plaque in memory of Thomas Begley which was seen by some people as glorifying his actions.  These two events remind us of how difficult it is to remember all of our dead.

So how do the families and friends of people like Thomas Begley, Harris Boyle, Wesley Sommerville and the many others “killed in action” remember them?    Here I come to the central point of this article, no matter what anyone did in his or her final hours or minutes, we cannot change the fact that he or she was some mother and father’s son or daughter, a brother or sister, a father or mother – he or she was a family member and painful as this will be to say for any victim reading this, that person was most likely a loved member of the family.

Painful as this may be for victims, those killed in action because of their choice to join an organisation are still missed and mourned by their own families and friends.   But it is not quite as simple as that; whilst some members of the family of those killed in action will remember them with pride and as “making the ultimate sacrifice for the cause”, other family members remember a son or daughter killed as a “terrorist” with enormous shame.  This article wants to point out the complexity of some family responses as well as the ongoing suffering of all the families of those killed in action.

Our society continues to argue over the so called “hierarchy of victims”, a debate I suspect which will continue for some time to come.  I do not plan to enter this debate here, instead I want to focus on the suffering of the families bereaved through the deaths of their loved ones.   When we stop to reflect on their suffering, it is not thinkable to talk about a hierarchy of suffering.    How can we put on different levels the pain and sense of loss for example of the widow of an RUC officer or the mother of a paramilitary volunteer?  The suffering of each family member whose loved one or loved ones was/were killed during the Troubles cannot be put in a hierarchy.   There is no hierarchy of suffering.   None of us surely can deny the right to suffer, grieve or mourn to anyone else.

In short, all of us need to be able to grieve, to mourn and to remember the people we love.    Whilst it is highly unlikely that families of victims will reach a point where they recognise everyone who has died during the conflict was a victim of the Troubles, I would hope that there could be agreement in acknowledging that all the families of ALL the dead suffered and continue to suffer irrespective of how their loved one or in some cases loved ones died.

Fr. Martin Magill is the Parish Priest at Sacred Heart Parish, Belfast.

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