still remembering the Somme

They began their commemorations early in Bushmills. I took this photo in 2012:


In the Gates of Death, rejoice! We see and hold

the good – bear witness, Earth, we have made

our choice with freedom’s brotherhood!

60,000 died on the first day of the battle

There’s a great historical project at work on the main street of Bushmills. It’s a celebration and a renaissance of the idea of the Ulster Scots culture. You can understand why the ardent Unionists get fed up with Cuchulain and WB Yeats and ruined monasteries and all that literature.  The other side has so much famous culture and history.  And of course it’s part of a continuing political conflict in which the Unionist local authority is playing its part. The cultural heritage they outline has some surprising heroes:


And they know how to make you notice a war memorial:


This particular show was for the Queen’s jubilee.

And here is a celebration of the Lambeg drum:


We’re not told who wrote the verses.The Lambeg drums beat also for Seamus Heaney. He too heard them across the townlands on summer evenings,  but as a frightening show of military strength to keep the nationalists in their place. He wrote an early poem – before the ‘troubles’- about it which as far as I know doesn’t appear now in his published work. I feel that he would have rejected his caricaturing of the Orange men. But it has become notorious, seized upon angrily by unionists, and taken up by nationalists who were later upset that Heaney didn’t give them anything else. (He wrote a poem at the height of the troubles about meeting an IRA man who demanded that he wrote something for them, who wanted propaganda not poetry.) Here’s a sample, from the internet, with an outraged response::

  The lambeg balloons at this belly, weighs
His back on his haunches, lodging thunder
Grossly there between his chin and his knees:
He is raised up by what he buckles under.

Each arm extended by a seasoned rod,
He parades behind it. And though the drummers
Are granted passage through the nodding crowd
It is the drums preside like giant tumers.

Training the note of hate on the ear’s greed,
His battered signature subscribes ‘No Pope’.
The pigskin’s scourged until his knuckles bleed.
The air is pounding like a stethoscope.

Mr. Heaney should buy then read a copy of Rev. Gary Hastings excellent book With Fife & Drum music, memories and customs of an Irish tradition then try to understand why we – from the fife and lambeg drum musical tradition, play our instruments!

In the countryside now the flagpoles are busy:

DSC04200 (2)

The names, the battle honours, represent corners of foreign fields that are forever Ulster.

I hear that most people are completely fed up with it all but they don’t have flags to say so.

This year I went to see an exhibition in Coleraine town hall, Remembering the Somme. There are momentoes:  buttons, cigarette tins, old photos, bayonets. There are big photographs, well restored and improved, of some of the young men who died, together with accounts of their lives and backgrounds. And you can read about how the UVF was formed in response to the Home Rule Bill in 1910, when loyalists vowed to fight against the possibiity of Irish independence, how they got hold of guns, how they trained, how they joined up in 1914 to fight Britain’s greater enemy in a real war. The impression given is that the First World War was somehow part of the same struggle. There is no mention of the fact that many nationalists, many catholics joined up too. No denial of that fact either, of course.

And there was a letter to the Northern Constitution from a man who had been wounded on the first day of the battle,  but who did indeed rejoice in the gates of death.  The letter was shown without any comment



It’s rare to come across a celebration of the Somme. This man, described only as a volunteer, evidently enjoyed the war, and took pleasure in the killing of Germans. This piece gives us a new interpretation of the meaning of that famous Ulster slogan, No Surrender!  I thought it meant, we will not  surrender,  but it seems that it can also mean, you will not surrender, because if you try to, we’ll kill you anyway. No doubt it was common in the confusion of battle for prisoners, or men trying to become prisoners, to be killed, but to exult in it – ‘there was no mercy’ – and to casually dehumanise the enemy with terms of abuse, boches, huns – well, it’s certainly different from the immaculate pieties of Armistice Day.

Of course many nationalists, many catholics also  volunteered to fight in the First World War. They did so for various reasons. Some did it for the money, or because they thought it would be an adventure. John Redmond, a nationalist MP, joined up for the sake of Serbia and Belgium, seeing the war not as a clash of empires but as a crusade for freedom, believing somehow as young idealists did all over Europe that ‘our’ empire was not as bad as theirs, that the cause of war transcended nationalist and class struggles,  and that Irish unionists and nationalists, having become comrades in arms, would return to a changed and united Ireland. And they believed that the nationalist cause was all but won, since England had promised.

And at the time of the Easter Rising there was very little support for the rebels who had staged a foolish uprising which led to the deaths of many civilians at a time when Irish volunteers were giving their lives in France.   But attitudes changed when the British began executing the rebels.   As Yeats famously wrote – ‘changed, changed utterly….’   And not in the way Redmond had hoped.  The martyrs of 1916 became the most successful suicide bombers in history. Saving Serbia and Belgium was long forgotten when the nationalist volunteers, those who survived, came home.

Here’s something from a really good site on Irish history, from Queen’s University, Belfast, by…/IrelandandtheFirstWorldWar

/Perhaps the most difficult process was that faced by those nationalist volunteers in the British army who had set off, fired by John Redmond’s claim that ‘Ireland’s highest interests’ lay ‘in the speedy and overwhelming victory of England and the Allies’. Having helped raise what he described as ‘a distinctively Irish army, composed of Irishmen, led by Irishmen and trained at home in Ireland’, Redmond asserted in the middle of the war that ‘the achievements of that Irish army have covered Ireland with glory before the world, and thrilled our hearts with pride. North and South’, he added, ‘have vied with each other in springing to arms, and, please God, the sacrifices they have made side by side on the field of battle will form the surest bond of a united Irish nation in the future’. But by the time the survivors of the war returned home, words like these had turned into peculiarly empty rhetoric. In a more definitively nationalist Ireland, where many hearts had been thrilled by the valour of the men of 1916, there was no triumphant welcome home. It was as Tom Kettle, a former nationalist MP who was killed on the Somme serving with the 16th Division, had predicted. ‘These men’ (the 1916 leaders), he wrote, ‘will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down—if I go down at all—as a bloody British officer’.

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