For generations…centuries even…. Irish families have lived along either side of invisible county borders….Sligo/Mayo, Armagh/Down, Meath/Dublin. Necessarily each one of the thirty two counties has a border with at least one other county.
These lines never split families and family farms until the creation of an international frontier between the Republic of Ireland and the “United Kingdom” and it brought in a new world of “approved cross-border roads”, customs posts, concession roads and the issuing of permits for residents of the Republic to live or be employed in the North of Ireland. It was of course a form of discrimination, a way for Norn Iron unionists to ensure there was no mass migration of economic Catholic migrants …and future nationalist voters…..coming over from the Republic.
There was no such legislation in England, Wales and Scotland. It was easier to travel or migrate from Galway to London than to travel or migrate from Lifford to Strabane (one mile away).
The “customs posts” and the restricted movement of people into the north did not end until both Ireland and Britain became members of the Common Market in 1973. Yet …ironically the British presence at the border was much increased in the 1970s and 1980s because of the Troubles.
Only since 1998 has there been total free movement.
One such “border family” was my mothers. Family and farm land on either side of a county line which in 1922, radically changed their way of life, which had remained much the same since James (my great grandfather) married Rose in 1858.
His son John married Catherine and they would have eleven children, the youngest my mother who was born in 1912 but as she always insisted AFTER the Titanic had sank.
John, a part-time tenant farmer would die in a work-related accident thirty years before I was born.
As I have said elsewhere, those post-Famine years and early 20th century were all about Respectability. ….Religion, hard work, total abstinence from alcohol…china cups and saucers at Sunday tea. And politics…mainstream nationalism all the way, avoid controversy as the menfolk were steered clear of militant republicanism and anything remotely “British”.
My granny Catherine died (aged 84) when I was just 4 years old…and thank GOD, I remember her.
She could be proud of the Respectability. Grandchildren who became priests, nuns, teachers and nurses.
Land was important to the farmers.
When my mother married my Belfast father, her family bought a house for them in West Belfast. A Dowry. It may not have been much of a house …in fact it was a slum in West Belfast but the point is that my parents owned it.
My parents, my uncles and aunts are all dead now.
It would have been nice to ask them about Magdalene Laundries, orphanages, and the rest but while my generation can be forgiven for saying that we knew nothing, surely the older generation must have known something.
It is History…why suppress it?
So two weeks ago. …a phone call. Would I like to go to a funeral…or rather the dedication of a plaque on a grave, over one hundred years after the death…in the maternal home village.
Turns out my mother had a paternal cousin who died as a result of wounds sustained during the First World War.
Instantly, I said yes…but almost immediately found myself wondering.
I am after all Irish…the whole “Royal” British Legion and the English imperialism is not my cup of tea. I despise all that militarism, poppies and old soldiers parading their British heroism and wrapping it up in all that “at the going down of the sun….we will remember them”.
That might seem hard on the concept of veterans, who stormed the Normandy beaches or parachuted a bridge too far. But increasingly there are few of those veterans and in Norn Iron, a local “Royal” British Legion member is more likely to have served in Norn Iron during the Troubles. I cant seriously respect them.
Whatever…no person who ever served in the British Army can have done so in the interests of the Irish nation.
Their “service” and their “sacrifice” in WW2 or later in Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya, Aden….Norn Iron….Afghanistan, Iraq….is not part of my nations ethos.
The best they can expect from me is …Indifference.
The worst they can expect is …Contempt.
I did not know what to expect on Sunday. The short Catholic Church service, attended by a representative of the Queen of England and a handful of those blazered and bereted British Legion men and women. And my maternal cousins and their children.
And then out to the graveside…and the dedication of a marker on the grave. The British Legion piper, the British Legion bugler and standard bearer. And the Silence and all that “going down of the sun…..” stuff.
“They” stood in a neat line on the path…and “We” stood clustered together.
And afterwards a few polite words were exchanged.
and a cup of tea and sandwiches in the village hall.
I am glad I was there. My cousins were glad also.
To be there was not any comment on what my mothers cousin had done.
Family is Family.
Even after a century.
Of course what did he actually do? Left his widowed father and joined the British Army and they educated him and seven years later, he was in France fighting in World War One. And only six weeks into the war (September 1914) , he was hit in the head by a shell and he lost his right eye, most of his teeth and tongue. And he came “home” to this small village to recover.
At my grandparents house, where my mother was still a baby.
And in January 1915, he collapsed in my grandparents house and died in a local hospital. Cause of death…his wounds, menangitis and a coma. The motorised hearse making the seven mile journey from hospital to Catholic graveside must have been very high profile.
And his widow in England was doubly bereaved, losing their only child two months after his death.
But the Corporal quickly disappeared from history….BIG History and SMALL History. The grave was a family grave but there was no indication that he was in it. His name is not on the headstone.
And none of the family who attended last weeks dedication had ever heard of the Corporal. While my mother was just two years old, she must have known in later life. My older uncles and aunts who were children and young adults at the time,must have been aware.
Maybe the Corporal was a victim of the fast moving historical time in which he lived and died. Joining a “peace time” British Army in 1907 was no big deal. Dying in 1915 when unionist and nationalist volunteers were in France for very different reasons, was more problematic.
And of course after 1916, the problem became greater and bigger still after 1922 when it was apparent that the nationalists in British uniforms had lost and the unionists in British uniforms had won.
So the Corporal was airbrushed out of family history.
But also airbrushed out of his Regiment’s history. Researchers “discovered” his records a couple of years ago and entered into discussions with surviving family and the local church.
Getting an official “British” marker was in itself a problem as there was some obstacle that the cause of death was directly related to the War.
The “Corporal” is now an official casualty of the First World War.
Certainly two weeks ago, I knew nothing about this.
How do I feel? Do I feel “different”.
I will not be wearing a poppy and lamenting a soldiers death or by extension any soldier who died in British uniform.
Nothing to do with MY ethos….or the ethos of MY nation.
“Oh had they died by Pearse’s side
Or fought with Cathal Brugha
Their names we would keep
Where the Fenians sleep
Neath the shroud of the Foggy Dew”
(Canon Charles O’Neill “The Foggy Dew”)
It is all about Family. And during the course of my lifetime….and I lived my first 17 years in peace….Family and Friends and Neighbours made decisions that I did not make. And it never stopped me attending a funeral.
I am conscious that people honour veterans…either in great public displays (including lip service) at Remembrance Sunday in Britain or Veterans Day in USA…or in private ways thru helping the survivors of war deal with the trauma…poverty, addictions, homelessness, stress, physical pain or mental illness that is often a consequence of service. My mothers cousin was a veteran for just a few months and his widow may have survived him for decades.
But Norn Iron is a divided society and I suspect the Corporals memory would have been better served if he had died as a member of the Dublin Fusiliers or Connught (sic) Rangers where Time has healed. But Norn Iron is a divided community and the chomparison is best made with United States and in border States like Kentucky or (West) Virginia in the century beteeen 1861 and 1961. Possibly loyal American citizens were told about graves of ancestors who died in Confederate regiments at Shiloh and Gettysburg.
The comparison is maybe with country churchyards near Louisvillle Kentucky and Wheeler, West Virginia in 1861 and the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy alongside surprised relatives.
I dont suppose the Corporal joined up for any cause beyond three square meals a day and maybe he found a degree of companionship that he did not find with his birth family. I am glad that he died “at home” with his uncle (my grandfather).
Terry Pratchett, the author who died earlier this year stated Death does not really begin until a persons life ceases to have an impact.I hope he is wrong. I am not comfortable with the thought that Oliver Cromwell can “outlive” harmless, childless people or that my parents life will not really resonate beyond my life and that their birthdays and anniversaries will mean little. In fifty years time, my birthday will mean nothing to my great grandchildren.
Death should be more…egalitarian.
There was nothing fair about the Corporals life, death or memory.