On tour with the Royal British Legion as they bus to see the queen
Still showing stamina, former soldiers head North to meet their patron
People involved in the British armed forces off to see Queen Elizabeth. “We are going because she is our patron. We’re not a unionist throw-off from the Republic.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Pat Murray took the seven o’clock train from Cork to Dublin and now we were on the bus north to Coleraine. It is suggested that this is going to be a long day for him: “No, no,” says Murray, who served in the Royal Air Force for five years as an electrical technician. “I’m only 76.”
The former bus driver in Cork is now president of the Royal British Legion in Cork: “We have 70 full members.”
The first time David O’Morchoe saw the queen was at his passing out parade at Sandhurst. Her father, George VI, was taking the salute. Ó Murchadha is an ancient Gaelic title which goes back to the kings of Leinster. O’Morchoe is also president of the Royal British Legion in the Republic.
Born and raised and – perhaps crucially – schooled in Ireland, he joined the British army in 1946 and left in 1979. By that time he was a major general. He had commanded the Royal Irish Fusiliers. When he went to Sandhurst, he says: “I was totally confident that I was Irish. I was confident because my father was Irish, and had served. I headed to an Irish regiment. I knew I was going to an Irish community.”
We are travelling to Coleraine, Co Derry, to meet the queen, who is the patron of the Royal British Legion. “We’re going because she is our patron,” says O’Morchoe. “We’re not a unionist throw-off from the Republic.”
The Royal British Legion in the South has been invited, by Coleraine Borough Council, to attend its ceremony commemorating the contribution of Irish soldiers to the first World War. That is why we are on this bus which is being driven by Alex, a German from Berlin. No one passes any remarks about this.
There are 700 members of the Royal British Legion in the South, in 10 branches of the organisation. And there are 12,500 members in the North, in 77 branches. The British Legion spends £200,000 (€250,000) a day on welfare across Britain and Ireland.
Brian Maguire, area manager for the British Legion on the island of Ireland, says that its main work is now welfare. It has a new service based in Wales, with a free helpline which is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The qualifying factor is just seven days spent in one of the UK armed services,” Maguire says. “In the past we would ask people seeking help for their service number, but that’s way down our list now.”
The winds of history have fairly blasted through the Royal British Legion on this island, and most of the heads on the bus are grey – although, Maguire adds: “ We have helped people barely out of their teens, who have served in Afghanistan. ” Of the younger serving personnel, Murray says simply: “We go to their funerals.”
In contrast, Lorraine and Peter McWilliams from Wicklow deal with veterans in their 90s, in their work for the Royal Air Forces Association, which comes under the umbrella of the Royal British Legion. The couple might arrange a tank of oil for someone who is experiencing hard times or help them get medical care. “Much more difficult here,” said Peter McWilliams. “In the UK you’ve got the National Health [Service].”
“They’ve two big problems,” says Peter, who was born in Rathdrum and joined the RAF at 17. “They’re looking to get into a [residential] home.” “And loneliness,” says Lorraine. Everybody needs to talk about their shared experiences, she adds.
Even now people in the Republic are very careful, although, the McWilliamses say: “We have felt the benefits, the improvement, since the queen’s visit to Ireland. We were working in the British embassy and we felt the atmosphere change, physically. Even while she was here. It was almost as if a curtain had flipped up.” That curtain flipped up on decades of denial from all quarters.
Murray says there was a strong tradition in Cork of joining the British armed forces. “Of course there was; there were no jobs.” And the permanent threat of trouble from the IRA. “No better boys to give you a beating if they so decided.”
A friend of his received such a beating when he came home to Cork. “While he was active in the army – they found out he was around.”
Everyone on the bus talks about the improvements in the relationships between those who have served in the British forces and the broader Irish culture. “Transformed, totally transformed,” O’Morchoe says.
Everyone also talks about the excellent relationship between the Irish Defence Forces and the legion. “They’ve been fantastic to us,” Peter McWilliams says. The Irish have always been a huge presence in the British army. “They have a history of being very brave and very good fighters,” O’Morchoe adds. “One-third of Nelson’s fleet was Irish.”
* This article was amended on June 25th, 2014 to correct an error. Coleraine Borough Council was commemorating the contribution of Irish soldiers to the first World War, not the second World War as originally reported.