When hope and history rhyme: my non-existent border
Prof Chris Fitzpatrick charts his personal 60-year journey through Anglo-Irish relations
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth bows after laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin on May 17th, 2011. Photograph: Reuters/Arthur Edwards/Pool
1916 and 1966
In 1966 I had two dreams. One was to die for Ireland like Patrick Pearse, Tómas MacDonagh and James Connolly. The other was to play for England with Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.
In bed at night, I would often go to sleep to the soundtrack of gunfire and the voices of the GPO rebels singing A Soldier’s Song in my head – mixed with the famous Wembley roar on match day.
Given the choice, and with the proviso that I could play in disguise, so as not to be shot as a traitor, I probably would have given up my ambition to be a rebel to wear the England shirt. I longed for one Roy of the Rovers moment of glory on the hallowed north-west London turf.
Although I was fired up with 1916 anniversary patriotic zeal and could sing Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile, The Patriot Game and Kevin Barry as party pieces, my heart beat with a very secret pride beneath a red shirt in my dreams. This was the shirt with the three lions on it that England wore when they beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final.
In my dreams, Irish rebel leaders and England’s finest soccer players rubbed shoulders with each other with a natural ease. Sometimes they even swapped roles
Despite all I had learned in school about the Plantations, Cromwell and the Penal Laws, I had a clear sense that we were not very different from the English. I read the same comics as my English cousins and all their friends. We all followed teams in the English First Division. And, although I have always loved the Irish language, “is é Béarla mo theanga dúchais”.
In my dreams, Irish rebel leaders and England’s finest soccer players rubbed shoulders with each other with a natural ease. Sometimes they even swapped roles. In my imagination there were no hard borders between them. They were all heroes to me. I was nine years old.
Bobby Sands, Margaret Thatcher
I met Margaret Thatcher in 1978. She had the poshest accent I had ever heard. I was a pre-med student and was attending a science conference in London. She had been invited to open the conference.
After her address, she talked to a handful of Irish students. She was surprisingly friendly and explained how she had trained as a chemist and stressed how important science was for all our futures.
She seemed to enjoy meeting us and was in no rush to leave. As she left, she shook my hand and wished me well in my studies. I was quite touched by the experience and followed her career afterwards with additional interest.
When I heard she had narrowly escaped being killed in the IRA’s Brighton bomb in 1984, I was deeply shocked. Although I despised her politics as prime minister, and most particularly her intransigence that saw 10 hunger strikers slowly die, I retained a soft spot for her on a personal level – arising out of our brief encounter.
Some years later, I visited the grave of Bobby Sands in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. Despite my abhorrence of violence, I harboured a deep-rooted empathy for those who had gone on hunger strike in 1981. I had even published a poem about their deaths.
To me, they were like another republican hunger striker, Terence MacSwiney, whose martyrdom in 1920 had been the subject of a history project I did in sixth class.
As I paid my respects at the hunger striker’s graveside, I was overcome by a Joyce-like epiphany. I suddenly remembered the firm grip of Margaret Thatcher’s handshake and her kind words to me. Thatcher and Sands had fought a macabre duel to the death. Although deadly enemies, they possessed a similar unyielding self-belief and unbreakable determination.
I began to wonder how things might have turned out if the IRA man had been brought up in Grantham and the Iron Lady in west Belfast. Troubled by this unanswerable question, I left the cemetery.
In 2016, I invited Jo Berry to speak at a medical conference that I was involved in running. Jo’s father, Sir Anthony Berry MP, had been killed in the Brighton bomb along with four others. I remembered seeing his photograph in the newspapers at the time, alongside ones of Margaret Thatcher.
Jo Berry had set up the charity, Building Bridges for Peace, with convicted Brighton bomber, Patrick Magee. Jo told the conference: “Had we all lived each other’s lives, we could all have done what the other did.” She seemed to answer the question I had once asked myself in Milltown Cemetery.
Mahony, Connolly and the queen
Watching The Crown on Netflix recently made me realise that Queen Elizabeth II has been monarch for longer than I’ve been alive. She made her first Christmas Day televised broadcast in 1957 – the year I was born. As a kid growing up, I remember watching her a lot on the telly on Christmas Day with my grandfather. He always seemed to prefer her message to the Pope’s.
It would never have crossed my mind back then that I would ever write to her. But I did, eventually – and all because of events that unfolded in GPO in 1916. I thought she might be interested in hearing about them.
Lieutenant George Mahony had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Having travelled to Dublin to visit his sister on Easter Monday, he ended up being captured by the Volunteers and brought to the GPO. Mahony, a UCC medical graduate, put military considerations to one side and took over the care of the wounded rebels, including James Connolly, who had sustained serious leg injuries.
Towards the end of Easter week, Mahony was instructed to leave the GPO with the wounded. On learning that Connolly had suffered a deterioration in his condition, he returned on his own to the post office, which was in flames, and came under gunfire from both sides to take care of his patient. After the war, Mahony worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in one of the poorest parts of India. He died in Belfast in 1964.
Mahony’s actions in 1916 went largely unrecognised – apart from his anonymous appearance in Walter Paget’s painting Birth of the Irish Republic, in which he is depicted alongside the wounded Connolly.
Connolly’s comment, “You know, you’re the best thing we captured all week”, was a testament to the respect the rebels had for the British army doctor.
In November 2016, the Irish Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists posthumously awarded a special gold medal to George Mahony – accepted by his grandson, Patrick Walker. James Connolly’s grandson, James Connolly Heron, was also present.
I had the privilege of reading the citation. It recognised “the exceptional dedication to patient care in circumstances of extreme personal danger that was demonstrated by Lieutenant George Mahony during his time as a Prisoner-of-War in Dublin during the Easter 1916 Rising”.
The tragedy of history is that brave and idealistic men like James Connolly and George Mahony, who were alike in many ways, were ever on opposite sides of a bloody conflict
This event could never have taken place, had it not been for the queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 – a catalyst for the renewal of relations on and between our islands. This was acknowledged in the letter to the queen.
In her response, the queen expressed her gratitude for informing her about the actions of George Mahony and wished the institute well.
The tragedy of history is that brave and idealistic men like James Connolly and George Mahony, who were alike in many ways, were ever on opposite sides of a bloody conflict.
John Lowe and Patrick Pearse
The same can be said about Patrick Pearse and John Lowe.
At 6ft3in, Lieutenant John Lowe had the look of a future movie star. He had seen action at Gallipoli prior to arriving in Dublin at Easter 1916 for a holiday. His father, Brigadier-General William Lowe, was commander-in-chief of the British forces in the capital at the time. The 18-year-old appears alongside his father in the famous surrender photograph, opposite Patrick Pearse and Elizabeth O’Farrell.
After the surrender, Lowe brought Pearse under armed guard to Kilmainham Gaol. On arrival, he instructed the driver of the armoured car to keep driving around the block to allow Pearse more time to finish writing his final letters. Pearse gave the British officer the Volunteers’ badge from his slouch hat as a token of gratitude for his kindness.
After the war, Lowe became an actor and moved to Hollywood. He changed his name to John Loder and married the movie star Hedy Lamarr. He enjoyed a long career that included more than 40 movies.
In later life, Loder recalled the dignity and courage shown by Patrick Pearse, whom he referred to as a “poet and a schoolteacher”.
In 2016, I fulfilled an ambition. This was to re-enact the 1916 surrender photograph on the same location, with the closest living relatives of those who were present in the original. On November 11th (Armistice Day) 2016, on Parnell Street, outside the present-day Kingfisher Restaurant, the relatives came together.
The relatives were Noel Scarlett (grandnephew of Patrick Pearse), Bríd Kelly (grandniece of Elizabeth O’Farrell), Anthony Loder (son of John Lowe and Hedy Lamarr, grandson of William Lowe) and Max Loder (Anthony’s son). The photograph was taken by Richard De Courcy-Wheeler, grandson of Harry De Courcy-Wheeler – the original photographer.
The emotional high-point of the occasion was a handshake between Noel Scarlett and Anthony Loder – a demonstration of the depth of respect that existed between Patrick Pearse and John Lowe.
In November 2017, Noel Scarlett sadly died. At the funeral mass, two photographs in a single frame were carried to the altar at the Offertory. The photographs had been taken 100 years apart. They were placed beside the coffin, which was draped in the Irish Tricolour.
I suspect that Patrick Pearse and John Lowe would have approved.
When hope and history rhyme
In recent years, a more nuanced interpretation of history has emerged. What happens in life and in history often relates to the circumstances into which you are born and the roads that open out in front of you –
whether you are Margaret Thatcher, Bobby Sands, George Mahony, James Connolly, John Lowe or Patrick Pearse.
“Had we all lived each other’s lives, we could all have done what the other did” – as Jo Berry put it. A lot has happened on these islands in recent years to change those circumstances and to map out new roads.
When the queen said “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde” in Dublin Castle in May 2011, it seemed that Seamus Heaney’s words had come true (“History says, don’t hope/ On this side of the grave./ But then, once in a lifetime/ The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up/ And hope and history rhyme.).
We had finally reached that “further shore”, “on the far side of revenge” where “hope and history rhyme”.
Sadly, the recent disgraceful actions of Barry McElduff MP and the Sinn Féin leadership, in relation to the Kingsmill massacre, indicate that there are some who have not yet reached this shore.
Wounds need to be healed, not opened. History needs to be remembered, not desecrated, if it is to rhyme with hope”.
I believe we will always be closer to London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and Derry than we will ever be to Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Strasbourg and Brussels. Come what may, the destinies of our two islands, like our histories are “fite fuaite thart ar a chéile”.
When I was nine years old, I thought that we were not very different. I think I was right. Let’s make sure it stays this way.
Prof Chris Fitzpatrick is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and former master, at Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital and clinical professor at University College Dublin school of medicine