In the approach to Remembrance Day, Many people in the north of Ireland begin to think about all those men and women who died in two world wars and in subsequent conflicts. One of the most dramatic of all locations for solemn remembrance in the whole of Northern Ireland is the recently restored monument on the heights of Knockagh, where the war-dead of County Antrim are honoured each November, overlooking the waters of Belfast Lough and my home town of Carrickfergus.
One of the most important things about remembrance is to ensure that it serves a healing and positive purpose for the community. It is the debt we owe to all those who once died in the belief that by so doing, their community might retain its freedom and well-being. In that regard, it would be good for Ulster Protestants to recall more fully the contribution made by Irish Catholics to the defeat of German militarism in two world wars.
In my home town, during the early part of the First World War, the local parish priest at Mount St Nicholas was Father Henry, who was a chaplain to the hundreds of Catholic soldiers who resided at Sunnylands camp. There were many men from Counties Cavan and Monaghan in the battalion of Royal Irish Fusiliers which was sent to Sunnylands to train at the outbreak of the war. They were known locally as the ‘bhoys’ and the Carrickfergus Advertiser welcomed them with ‘cead mille failte’ – Irish for 100,000 welcomes. The Catholic parish entertained these men and Father Henry looked after their spiritual needs. When this priest died as a relatively young man, the soldiers from Sunnylands lined up outside the chapel to pay their respects at the funeral.
The new parish priest was Father McKay and he maintained his interest in the welfare of the soldiers, raising money among his parishioners to send to the Tyneside Irish brigade of the Northumberland Fusiliers, where a Presbyterian friend of his was serving as an officer. In fact quite a number of local Catholic families sent men to the front, often out of a family tradition of soldiering or sheer financial necessity in an era of much poverty. The obituary columns of the Carrickfergus Advertiser bear sad witness to the deaths of several Catholic soldiers and sailors from Whitehead, Carrickfergus and Greenisland in this horrible and wasteful war.
Sadly for various reasons during the 20th century, the process of remembrance became a divisive one throughout Ireland. Nationalists became deeply distressed and angered at the activities of British troops in Ireland in the 1920s. During the War of independence, some troops forced Nationalist businesses to close on Armistice Day and threatened any business-owner who did not do so with having his premises burned down. Unionists tended to see the sacrifice of so many local young men as an emblem of enduring Britishness and a counterpoint to Republican mythology. However, even in the Second World War, despite divisive local politics, many Irish Catholics still went to fight against Hitler and almost as many citizens of the neutral Republic died in that conflict as men and women from British Ulster.
It would be a healthy thing if the sacrifices of all of Ireland’s population could be fully recalled and honoured on Remembrance Day, including of course the Polish ancestors of many of our recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. This might mean that more local Catholic Christians take the step of attending a Remembrance Service or holding their own church ceremony. It might also mean changing the thinking around existing Remembrance traditions, so that Protestant clergy learn to feel less theologically compromised by the active presence of Catholic clergy and so that Unionist participants in commemorations do not regard the absence of a poppy in a lapel as an indication of betrayal and disloyalty.
If we became a little more creative, gentle and inclusive each November, in remembering the death of loved ones, ancestors and neighbours, it might pave the way towards the day when all who take the name ‘Christian’ can remember the death of their Saviour by worshipping together rather than apart.
Philip Orr is a writer, researcher and drama practitioner who lives in Carrickfergus and attends Fitzroy Presbyterian church in Belfast.
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