Can we commemorate 1916 and the Somme together?

With President Hollande set to visit Glasnevin to mark the Irish role in the World Wars, we can acknowledge duality and remember those on opposite sides 100 years ago

In you, our dead enigma, all the strains Criss-cross in useless equilibrium

From In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge, by Seamus Heaney

A year of double remembrance, 2016 marks the centenary of Ireland's Easter rising against Britain, when almost 500 Irish citizens died, and commemorates the Battle of the Somme, in Flanders, in which 3,500 Irish died in a single day fighting in British uniform against Germany.

The Irish martyrs of the Rising are typically remembered by the wearing of the white Easter lily, a symbol of death and rebirth. Those who died at the Somme are honoured with the red and black poppy. In the past 100 years you would be hard put to find a single Irish person wearing both.


Why? Because official history after 1916 decreed that you could not be Irish and British at once. A binary logic of either/or trumped a dialectical one of both/and. The complex muddle of events was replaced by grand narratives of opposed nations.

In 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty divided the island of Ireland into the six counties of the North and the 26 of the South. After the bitter civil war that followed, Northern Ireland pledged loyalty to Britain, its loyalist or unionist majority proclaiming a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. The South proclaimed itself first the Free State and then, in 1948, the Republic of Ireland. Its majority identified as nationalist and Catholic.

The 30-year cycle of sectarian violence that followed the North’s eruption in the late 1960s, between loyalist Protestants and nationalist Catholics, brought them up against the problem that sovereignty is “one and indivisible”, as Rousseau put it. You couldn’t have both a United Kingdom and a United Ireland.

That the constitutional claims of the two nations were incompatible resulted in the protracted Troubles. The hunger striker Bobby Sands faced off against Margaret Thatcher, who ruled Britannia's waves from Ulster to the Falklands.

Although the Belfast Agreement of 1998 brought a significant degree of settlement to the island, there are still more than 300 so-called peace walls in Northern Ireland, separating communities along sectarian lines, and more than 80 per cent of education remains religiously segregated.

Divisive narratives

This is why commemorating 1916 is a drama. The options are decisive. Either one repeats the divisive narratives of militarist history – British versus Irish, loyalist versus nationalist, North versus South – or one complicates and pluralises memory by retrieving stories of “crossed identity” – for example, tales of siblings, neighbours, friends and lovers who found themselves on opposite sides at that historic moment.

As Brian Friel writes in Translations, "confusion is not an ignoble condition". The enemy of genuine commemoration is not complexity but certitude. Or, as the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney said of his own dual upbringing on the Border: "Two buckets are easier carried than one. / I grew up in between."

This between is all-important. In this centenary year several writers, artists and historians are engaging in a therapeutic work of “recovery”, including re-enacting repressed stories of 1916 involving brothers in arms wearing opposite uniforms in Dublin and at the Somme. These crossed narratives were neglected for generations because they didn’t fit the neat categories of monumental history: Irish or British.

Recovering them now means giving voice to traumas consigned to silence for decades. The events of 1916 were not just acts of warfare but also acts of imagination, promissory notes often unrealised in history. For example, Twinsome Minds, a multimedia performance I worked on with Sheila Gallagher of Boston College, re-enacts a number of criss-crossing narratives of 1916 that unfolded in the streets of Dublin during the Easter rebellion and on the first World War battlefields of Flanders and France.

By mixing images of white Easter lilies with blood-red poppies, Irish Rebel songs (The Foggy Dew) with first World War songs (Keep the Home Fires Burning), and by recounting stories of doubled and conflicted fidelities, the project aims to show how narrative exchange may respond to historical trauma with a healing of image and word.

Genuine commemoration means attending to what happened and what did not. The past is not only what has passed but also what lives on in memory, thanks to arrows of futurity that misfired or whose trajectory was interrupted. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur reminds us, history is more than what has taken place and cannot be changed; it equally involves potential futures still dormant in the past.

It is especially the founding events of a community that require reimagining, at critical moments, in order to unlock their unfinished possibilities. Genuine remembrance involves a return not just to moments of military glory but also to dreams forfeited by history. It signals a work of anticipatory memory.

Creative imagination

A signal feature of the 1916 Rising was that many of its lead actors were men and women of extraordinary creative imagination: poets, playwrights, artists, editors and runners of literary salons, theatres, experimental schools and publishing houses. We might mention figures like Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, Arthur Griffith and Seán Mac Diarmada, and the Gore-Booth and Sheehy sisters.

Half the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic had literary-intellectual journals. The Rising declared not only military independence but also what William Butler Yeats called “an Ireland / the poets have imagined”.

And yet 1916 was, in many respects, a failed dream, both for the Irish who died in Ireland fighting against Britain and for those who died in Flanders fighting with Britain. This failure is complex but may be partially understood, I think, in terms of a threefold trauma.

First, there was the sheer immensity of loss: the insufferable pain of war. Dublin, the elegant second city of the British Empire, was reduced to rubble in Easter Week, with soldiers and civilians dying horrific deaths.

Meanwhile, in Flanders, 40,000 Irish in British uniform endured appalling carnage – part of a World War of unprecedented proportions, which saw 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. For the Irish the killing occurred in two places simultaneously: at home and abroad.

Second, there was the confusion of friends and enemies. The notion of frères ennemis, or enemy brothers, took on new meaning in 1916. Countless Irish relatives found themselves fighting on different sides, often wearing uniforms made by the same Dublin tailors. Same wool, same stripes, same buttons, same braid. Only the colour was different: olive green for the Irish Volunteers in Dublin; dun brown for the Royal Fusiliers in Flanders.

There are stories of brothers looking at two posters on the same street – one calling for an Irish Republic, the other recruiting for British king and country – before enlisting in opposite armies. Other accounts tell of siblings exchanging flags and fidelities, shooting or saving each other in battle.

There is even the tale of Royal Irish Fusiliers during the Rising who shot fellow British officers firing at women stealing bread from a Dublin mill; the incident was hushed up by British high command, who dared not admit to mutiny in the ranks.

This was a time of conflicting commands and countercommands, a moment when the mess of leadership, on both sides, led to such chaos that the identity of wounded and wounder was often blurred. It is hard to commemorate contradiction.

Third, 1916 suffered from a failure to mourn properly. The death of thousands of Irish in British uniform in the first World War was not publicly acknowledged in the new independent Ireland; the wearing of the poppy was unpopular, if not forbidden, south of the Border. Those cheered as heroes when sailing to Flanders in 1914 were often treated as traitors on their return to Ireland in 1918, with many deeply maimed for life. (Alcoholism and suicide were common.)

As for those who stayed at home and died in the Rising, there were official State commemorations by the new Ireland, but these quickly became canonisations of a few national martyrs, whose sacrificial glory meant that ordinary civilian casualties, including women and children, went largely unmourned. Those caught in the crossfire were easily forgotten.

There are important stories of transgenerational recovery finding voice in this centenary year. As one lifts the veils of shame and silence many tales of crossed identity are returning to light. One of the most telling of these is the story of Francis Ledwidge.

Ledwidge was an Irish poet caught in the crossfire of British-Irish conflict only to be retrieved decades later by his compatriot Seamus Heaney. A Catholic labourer from Slane, Co Meath, Ledwidge sided with the Irish Volunteers in the lead-up to 1916 before enlisting in the British army. He was persuaded by the Irish Parliamentary Party that fighting with Britain would help achieve home rule, as promised by London, declaring that “he could not stand aside while others sought to defend Ireland’s freedom”. Ledwidge was motivated by a noble, if ultimately unfulfilled dream.

Blown to bits

Ledwidge was killed at Boezinge, Flanders, in July 1917. It was the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, and he was serving with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was having a tea break when he was struck by German artillery. He was 29. A chaplain who knew him, Fr Devas, recorded: “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.”

Today Ledwidge's grave is inscribed with lines from his poem Lament for Thomas MacDonagh, a rebel whose execution by the British in Dublin prefigured Ledwidge's own killing by the Germans in Flanders. Ledwidge and MacDonagh wore opposite uniforms, but they were brothers at heart:

He shall not hear the bittern cry

in the wild sky where he is lain,

Nor the voices of the sweeter birds,

Above the wailing of the rain.

In another poem from Flanders, Lament for the Poets of 1916, Ledwidge confessed deep empathy for the dreams of the Dublin "martyrs" at a time when Ireland oscillated between being a country and a nation. If nation was construed as a political ideal, country was a place of natural elements and multiple living things: birds, flora, rivers, trees, people. Ledwidge celebrates country as a shared landscape existing before and beyond borders.

Sixty years on, Heaney composed a powerful elegy to Ledwidge. It was written at the height of the Troubles. Heaney recognises a mirror image in this conflicted poet. He reimagines Ledwidge forlorn in Belgian trenches, which Heaney compares to the passage graves of the sacred Boyne Valley where Ledwidge grew up. Heaney cites Ledwidge lamenting his split between the Britain he serves in Flanders and the Ireland he has left behind with no “place among the nations but the place of Cinderella”.

He enters the mind of Ledwidge thus: “I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform, / A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave, / Ghosting the trenches with a bloom of hawthorn / Or silence cored from a Boyne passage grave . . . a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres: . . . ‘To be called a British soldier while my country / Has no place among nations . . .’ ”

Heaney locates Ledwidge’s identity crisis in the double culture in which he was reared. He concludes his poem by identifying these “strains” of crossed loyalty as both a conflict in Irish-British politics and a cleft in Ledwidge’s own psyche – a double split that tore him to shreds as brutally as the shrapnel from German guns. “You were rent / By shrapnel six weeks later . . . I hear again the sure confusing drum . . . You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones / Though all of you consort now underground.”

Heaney imagines here different soldiers marching to different tunes, all reconnected through underground passage graves joining Boyne to Boezinge.

Curiously, it is to a similar Boyne connection that another contemporary Irish author, Frank McGuinness, alludes in his play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme, a drama in which a troop of Northern Irish Protestants prepare for battle against the Germans.

Facing the river Somme on July 1st, 1916, the young Ulstermen recall that on that same day in 1690 their forefathers faced the River Boyne in Ireland: one of the most historic dates in Irish history, as the Protestant King William did battle with the Catholic King James for the kingdoms of England and Ireland.

Repeating that decisive political moment, they imagine the River Somme as the River Boyne taking them home on the day of their demise. Common country before conflicting nations. (The drama was enacted by the Abbey Theatre on the site of the Somme in Belgium this month.)

The poets – Heaney, Ledwidge, McGuinness – remind us that Ireland is an island beside an island, part of an archipelago connected by waterways, which make us all “mongrel islanders”.

“We are what we are, mongrel pure,” as the poet Thomas Kinsella remarked. The key is in the mixing, the middling, the crossing of the between, which Heaney calls a “symbolic reordering of Ireland”, open to new possibilities of “Irishness, Britishness, Europeanness, planitariness, creatureliness, whatever. . .”

Such symbolic reconfiguring requires that one distinguish between good and bad commemoration – between what Sigmund Freud called the healing work of “mourning” and the pathology of “melancholy”.

Between remembering backward (addicted to repetition compulsion) and remembering forward (alert to futures of the past). In sum, between memories that incarcerate and memories that emancipate.

Unfinished stories

This is an urgent task today, not just for Ireland and Britain but for any country that carries unresolved civil-war wounds in its psyche. Working across generations, the retrieval of unfinished stories invites us to transmute trauma into drama so that unspoken pain may be converted into narrative healing. Trauma refers to wounds so deep they could not be processed at the time and call for a later working-through in images and words – after the event.

Regarding 1916, the metamorphosis of history into story achieves catharsis by turning ghosts into ancestors. The phantoms need to be laid so that complex real persons, such as Ledwidge and the sons of Ulster, may return and their dreams of homecoming be honoured.

Good commemoration, I am suggesting, offers a way beyond either/or binaries toward an inclusive culture of both/and. A double remembrance of 1916 can recall the Rising and the Somme together and thus surpass endemic polarities – unionist versus nationalist, poppy versus lily, Protestant versus Catholic – so that Ireland and Britain may collaborate on a much larger stage.

The movement beyond British-Irish enmity found timely voice in the Belfast Agreement, signed by London and Dublin, and allowing citizens of Northern Ireland to identify as “British or Irish or both”.

The word “both” is crucial here: a term too long ignored by the official ideologies of both nations. It is the excluded middle that takes the gun out of Irish-British politics and gives a future to the past.

R ichard Kearney is Charles Seelig professor of philosophy at Boston College, USA. This is an edited version of an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Twinsome Minds premiered at the Abbey Theatre this year; its tour continues this autumn in the US; President François Hollande is due to unveil a monument at Glasnevin Cemetery next week to Irish soldiers in the first and second World Wars and in the Franco-Prussian War