Sunday, 20 March 2016

Easter Rising

I happened to be in Ireland last week, and, as every schoolchild probably knows by now, 2016 is the centenary of the Easter Rising.  The taxi driver with whom I discussed it was of the opinion that "people need to be careful when they stir up nationalist feeling".  His concern was that the hundredth anniversary of the event might have a similar long-term effect to the fiftieth anniversary in 1966, when Irish Republicans famously blew up Nelson's Pillar, a relic of colonial rule that stood in the middle of O'Connell Street, just across from the General Post Office which had been the rebels' HQ during the Easter Rising.

What many people do not realise is that repeated attempts had been made by the Irish government to remove the Pillar; they were thwarted by the terms of a trust that had existed since it was first erected in 1808.  Legal attempts to obtain permission to demolish it had failed.  To be fair, a few Irish people actually liked it; James Joyce and W B Yeats who wanted it to be preserved.  In general, though, it was an anachronism whose destruction was not greatly regretted.

Prior to the explosion, during the 1950s, the Irish government gave brief consideration to replacing the statue of Nelson with one of Patrick Pearse, the poet and schoolteacher who read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the GPO on the first day of the Easter Rising. The most articulate of the rebels, he gave them a voice, and this led inevitably to his execution in May 1916.  In death, he became the most famous and most missed of the leaders of the rising, his name being given to buildings, streets, parks, sports clubs and stations, while his face appeared on coins and stamps after Ireland's independence was finally achieved.  

Pearse's body was buried at Arbour Hill Military Cemetery in Dublin, after being transported from Kilmainham Gaol where he was shot by a firing squad, along with his younger brother Willie and other republican leaders.  The British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, had been warned not to return the rebels' remains to their families for fear of their graves becoming martyrs' shrines.  Pearse's mother and sister went on to become members of the Irish Parliament, whilst he and his companions acquired martyr status without too much difficulty.

One of those shot in company with Pearse was Thomas MacDonagh, a poet and playwright from Tipperary who taught with him at St Enda's School, where efforts were being made to keep the Irish language  alive. Despite the association, MacDonagh was a late recruit to the elite group of educated men who masterminded the  Easter Rising.  Tragically, his widow would die in a drowning accident a year after his execution; their legacy was their son, Donagh MacDonagh, brought up by an aunt to become both an accomplished writer and, at 29, the youngest person ever appointed to the Irish judiciary.

While the Easter Rising was taking place, thousands of Irishmen, of various religious and political persuasions, were fighting with the British forces against Germany.  Three days after the rising in Dublin, German gas attacks at Hulluch began, resulting in over 400 deaths among the 16th (Irish) Division.  Meanwhile, the poet Francis Ledwidge, a nationalist from County Meath, was on leave after being injured on active service in Serbia.  The news of the rising and its aftermath were devastating; he overstayed his leave and was later charged with being drunk in uniform; Ledwidge began once again to question his position, having already searched his conscience carefully before making the decision to enlist.

Some of Patrick Pearse's poetry in support of the Irish republican cause could so easily have been written about the First World War.  After the Easter Rising, however, with Pearse no longer around, Ledwidge was one of those who briefly filled his place, producing a "Lament for the Poets".  A close friend of MacDonagh, Ledwidge also produced a "Lament for Thomas MacDonagh", which takes on a less militant and more personal note. A year later, Ledwidge himself would be dead, the victim of a random shell explosion as he stood in a ditch, near Ypres, with a mug of tea in his hand. He died on the same day as the Welsh-language poet Ellis Evans (better known by his bardic name of "Hedd Wyn"), who was fatally wounded in action and is buried just a hundred yards away from Ledwidge. Members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship visited both of their graves during our visit to Ypres in October 2010 and paid tribute to these much-lamented Celtic war poets.


Saturday, 12 March 2016

Trees of Remembrance

I will confess that the idea of a "National Memorial Arboretum" seems rather a bizarre one.  Certainly there is a trend, and not really a new one, for people to plant trees in memory of loved ones. Siegfried Sassoon's mother, Theresa, notably planted one on the village green at Matfield to commemorate the end of the First World War, although the one that is to be found on the spot now is not the one she planted; that blew down in the great "hurricane" of 1987.  Nevertheless, the idea of a 150-acre site full of trees and other types of memorial is not one that would ever have occurred to me.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I visited the Arboretum last week, but I was pleasantly surprised. Admittedly the new visitor centre is mostly still under wraps, as is the main armed forces memorial, erected in 2007 and dedicated by Dr Rowan Williams, in his capacity as Archbishop of Canterbury.   It takes the form of a stone circle and carries the names of servicemen and women who have died in the years since World War II, many thousands of them, like a smaller version of the Thiepval memorial, or the Menin Gate of which Siegfried was so critical.  The main difference is that almost all of those named have known graves.  Their family has a private memorial; the nation has a public one.

Dr Williams is known as a man of peace, but clearly does not shrink from open admiration of the armed forces. "All the service and skill that keeps us secure may be invisible a lot of the time," he said at the opening ceremony, "but if we are not to be dishonest, shallow and unreal, we need to make the invisible visible once in a while."  There was a time - at the height of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, perhaps - when such recognition was hard to come by in the UK.  The Falklands conflict resulted in a certain thawing of public relations, but the army remained something you really didn't want your son to join.

What finally changed the atmosphere in Britain, I believe, was the peacekeeping activities of UN troops in countries like Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia, Rwanda and El Salvador. In 1988 the UN peacekeeping forces received the Nobel Peace Prize, an accolade that seems well-deserved even if their subsequent efforts were not always successful.  Meanwhile, the global situation suggested that the assault on Iraq in the First Gulf War was justified by the undisciplined conduct of the country's leader, and a decade later, the events of 9/11 left every country in the West looking over its shoulder.

What was more, acting with allies in the cause of world peace was starting to seem more like something you would want your son, or even your daughter, to be involved in.  It wasn't about being "Top Nation" any more (to quote Sellar and Yeatman); it was about showing how civilised you were by comparison with other countries.  If that sounds as though I'm being critical of the soldiers who went to Afghanistan, I'm not, but, like Siegfried, I'm not so sure about the politicians.

Memorial to the Land Girls and Lumber Jills
If it's peace we prize, and peace is the reason we now respect members of the armed forces, surely we should be giving some consideration to others who give their lives to help others: the fire service, the police, the lifeboat crews?  Many of these are volunteers and are not even paid for their service.  And it is here that you will find them, those who "also served".  It's a curious mixture really, and I suppose that its very randomness is, and will continue to be, an attraction, which is why there were plenty of visitors around on a cold Monday in March, and that number will undoubtedly grow.  A lot of them will be older people who actually remember a world war, but there will be the school parties and the older students and people like ourselves, who simply look on, if not with outright admiration, then at least with respect.

The artistry and workmanship that has gone into these memorials is also something to be appreciated. They come in all shapes and sizes, from traditional monuments relocated from closed-down public buildings to modern, brightly-coloured structures.  I would not be myself if I didn't comment on the fact that a couple of the carefully engraved stones and plaques suffered from the extraneou's apostroph'e syndrome - what a pity, when so much money has been spent on them, that no one took the trouble to check that the commemorative message was written correctly - spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar, so to speak - but I daresay the majority of visitors have not even noticed.

All in all, a recommendation for a visit.  Allow yourself plenty of time to walk around, or, if your mobility is limited, take the tour by "road train" with a running commentary from a British Legion volunteer.  I think it is worth it.