I saw an unusual tweet a few weeks ago. Someone had posted a picture of a bannister. That seemed strange until I read the caption and discovered the bannister was in a house where James Connolly had once lived. The tweeter expressed pleasure, perhaps awe, at sliding his hand along an object his hero had once used and it got me thinking about our relationship with the past and how objects and places and can make it come to life in a way books, no matter how well-researched and written cannot.
With the advent of cheap flights to Krakow, a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau has become a common experience to Northern Ireland travellers and it takes a heart of stone not be moved by the horror of the place. The village of Oradour sur Glanne in France has been left untouched, save by the attention of weed killer, since the day in 1944 when it was visited by the SS Das Reich division. Kettles still stand on stoves, cars rust in the streets and the confessional of the charred village church is perforated with bullet holes where SS men riddled it to kill the children who sought refuge there to avoid being burnt alive. The killers were born as Frenchmen in the German-speaking province of Alsace, but became Germans when the province changed hands in 1940. Today, their descendant are Frenchmen once again but their souls may still be German, a parallel that could be applied to either of Ireland’s traditions.
The first time I visited the Ulster Tower at Thiepval was on a shimmering June day and as the song goes, the red poppies danced. The newly ploughed fields were dry and chalky and phantom trench lines could be seen in places, a lifetime after they had been filled in. I paused to look at the ground while taking the short path to the graveyard near the tower. In the space of a few square feet I was able to collect two strands of barbed wire, half a dozen shell fragments and the intact cone of a small artillery shell. The objects were just lying on the surface; no digging was required. World War I is the war that just keeps giving. At a road sign nearby, a rusty grenade and two shells were left out for the police to collect and dispose of, part of a harvest of death and is reaped every time a local farmer ploughs a field. Unexploded ordnance from the war still kills French and Belgian farmers every year – they call it the iron harvest. The war keeps giving to us too; 1916 is pivotal to the identity of both Nationalists and Unionists and we are now at the centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme within a few months of each other.
Like almost everything else in our history these events have become mythologised and divisive. Republicans have staked a claim to the Rising though ownership is hotly contested by the Irish state and the Somme was promptly claimed by Unionists as the bloody birth of Ulster nationalism. The new Northern Ireland government was the first to build a national war memorial in France in the 1920s cementing the Somme’s place in our psyche. In both cases the courage of the combatants cannot be disputed. The Easter rebels fully expected to be slaughtered and despite a spirited fight, were inevitably defeated, at least in the military sense. The soldiers on the Somme were told to expect a walkover. A week-long bombardment was supposed to kill or stun the waiting Germans into submission but within a few seconds of going over the top, that was shown to be wishful thinking. The sons of Ulster were slaughtered, but not defeated.
Both events have left us with a frankly, bizarre nostalgia of a violent and bloody past and little else to get hold of. Would there have been an independent Irish state without the Rising? Probably, but who can say when it would have been achieved or if so, without bloodshed. Would a Northern Ireland state have been created without the sacrifice of the Somme? Probably, because in 1918, Imperialism was the raison d’être of the British state, the empire was something to be cherished and maintained. But that is only the view of this historian, others will doubtless differ and differ strongly. As to what Connolly, Pearse and the dead of the Somme would make of today’s political situation, who can really tell? They were men of their time and they thought as men of 1916, not 2016, and regardless of what some political purists may believe, we cannot think or even act like them, our experiences are just too different. We inhabit different worlds. So when trying to evaluate the the significance of events a hundred years ago, Zhou Enlai’s famous quip to Richard Nixon in 1972 about the French Revolution may be the best answer – ‘It’s too early to say’.
Both events, for better or ill, shaped the future of this island and the thinking of its inhabitants. How then should we commemorate these centenaries? The controversy has started already: Who should be invited? Should they go? Maybe we should have learned from Oradour or Berlin and left a few bombed-out ruins as silent testaments to our conflict or take the example of Paris, where little plaques mark the spot where resistants fell in the liberation of August 1944. Perhaps if we put a simple star, without a name, to mark where someone died, regardless of uniform or lack of it, we would see across Northern Ireland little clusters of galaxies. Then we can ask ourselves what people a hundred years from now would make of it all.
Sam Thompson is an amateur historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.