An Irishman’s Diary about the grave of Willie Redmond

Enda Kenny and David Cameron visiting the grave of Irish MP Willie Redmond in Heuvelland in Belgium in 2013. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Enda Kenny and David Cameron visiting the grave of Irish MP Willie Redmond in Heuvelland in Belgium in 2013. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

 

Among the countless war graves of France and Belgium, the one containing the remains of Willie Redmond is like no other. It stands apart, literally and metaphorically, in a field, its isolation all the more striking because of the military cemetery nearby, where Redmond’s former comrades lie.

There, as in all Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CGWC) sites, the emphasis is on uniformity – row upon row of identical rectangles of white Portland stone. Redmond’s grave, by contrast, has a cross.

Various theories now abound to explain its singularity. The most popular is that it was a protest over the executions of the 1916 leaders, whose deaths shifted popular opinion about the Rising, wrong-footing the thousands of Irish nationalists who had gone to the war.

While visiting the grave last month, I overheard an alternative explanation – that Redmond somehow felt he had let down his men, and so wanted to be buried apart from them.

Neither story is true, as I’ve since learned from an advance reading of a book by my colleague, Ronan McGreevy, to be published in June.

Maverick

Although it was, it seems, an accident of history, the unusual grave is apt in one sense, because Redmond was a maverick all his life. He started out in politics as a firebrand nationalist, decrying Perfidious Albion at Westminster and campaigning for a “harp without the crown”.

He spent his 21st birthday in Kilmainham Gaol, with Parnell, and was imprisoned on two later occasions. In a fateful phrase, he once declared that “England’s difficulty […] is Ireland’s opportunity” – a concept that would come back to haunt him.

But his background summed up the complications of Irish history. A Protestant ancestor had been hanged as a rebel in 1798, while a Catholic one helped suppress the insurrection. By middle age, Redmond had become determined to reconcile the traditions, peacefully, in a self-governing Ireland within the empire.

War

So when the Home Rule Bill passed in 1914 and then the war intervened, he echoed his brother’s call on Irishmen to enlist. And although he was 53 and overweight, he enlisted himself as an example.  Thereafter, although his superiors would have shielded him, he deliberately put himself in harm’s way.

It’s said that, after the Easter Rising, he had a death wish, just like Pearse, but with the intent of healing divisions opened by the rebellion. In any case, he was wounded soon after going over the top at Messines Ridge in 1917. A younger man would have survived the injuries. Redmond died within hours.

So began the saga of the grave, on which McGreevy’s fine book – Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front – has the last word.

Like many soldiers, Redmond was buried where he died, on the grounds of a convent-run hospice at Locre, Belgium. Later, when the CWGC moved the local dead to the official cemetery, it wanted to do the same for him. But his widow refused, preferring to keep the grave under the care of the nuns.

Thereafter, however, the site fell into neglect, and its “jungle of wild grass” was not tamed when the nuns sold the land to the commune in 1964. 

As the Rising’s jubilee loomed, with gloomy aptness, the grave was overgrown with weeds. So, with Redmond’s own 50th anniversary near, the CGWC renewed its determination to reclaim a lost soldier.

Redmond’s family agreed. But with his widow no longer around to thwart it, the commission was now opposed by a Belgian priest, Fr Debevere, who campaigned against the flouting of Mrs Redmond’s wishes, with backing from the local authorities.

It was muttered that the latter had an underhand motive – the grave was a tourist attraction. In any case, the priest prevailed, and the CGC was forced into tactical retreat. When, in 1977, Fr Debevere died, it tried yet again. But still the authorities said no. The grave stayed where it was, and remains there.

Garrulous

It’s said that, in personality, Willie Redmond was nothing like his more sombre brother.  He was garrulous, good-humoured, and always among company, making the lonely grave an aberration. It was also said of him, posthumously (by another nationalist MP) that he had been “too good for politics”.  

So it was ironic that even the location of his remains became the subject of so much manoeuvering in the century since.  Still, at least the site is now again impeccably maintained.  And as he would have wished, it has become a symbol of reconciliation – a point underlined in 2013 when it received a joint visit by the Taoiseach and the British prime minister.