In Flanders Field
Sir, - Is there much to be gained from discussions such as that on RTE's Saturday View recently concerning the recent commemoration in Belgium of the Irish dead in two world wars? Yes, there was indeed a welcome input from Niall Andrews MEP, who praised Paddy Harte and Glenn Barr for their initiative - something with which I most heartily agree. But, to a greater or lesser extent, all the speakers appeared to judge the happening from a mainly nationalist perspective, and one fashioned after almost 80 years of separate nationhood at that.
Were things as clear-cut for the Irish who fought in the first World War? Leaving aside (with no disrespect) those who, out of poverty, enlisted for the pay and also leaving aside those who gloried in war itself, there surely were others who believed it to be their duty for the sake of Ireland's freedom - for the Home Rule that had been promised?
It cannot be - indeed I know it is not - that only my uncles, Jack and Michael, thought that by joining the British navy and army they were hastening the day of separate Irish nationhood. They came from an ardent nationalist background, they both had jobs, their brothers, Tom and Kevin, were deeply immersed in Sinn Fein; but, try as he might, Kevin - my father - failed to persuade his closest brother, Michael, that he was mistaken. Michael died in Flanders, aged 26. What was missing in that Saturday View discussion was, I felt, recognition of that position - not to mention a suggestion that possibly the Michaels might not have been all that mistaken after all, that the Sinn Fein brothers just might have been a bit precipitate, that maybe the bloodstained century need not have been quite so bloodstained if . . . Not that I personally at this stage would want to offer a view as to which of those brothers were wiser, but I do know three things:-
that Michael's memory was a solitary, lonely one not talked about except in the immediate family;
that in the early years of this State my father, as Vice-President, laid a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph in Whitehall; and
that it has taken many years before another wreath could be laid by the Irish for such as Michael.
John A. Murphy worries that in our anxiety for reconciliation we are liable to misunderstand and misinterpret what President McAleese so beautifully performed on our behalf. And how did Northern nationalists view it, he wonders? I worry too, but from what seems to me to be a more uncomfortable position. What if nationalism itself, as handed down to us by "our heroes", was not then, is not now, the most desirable goal? I do not know, but surely the as yet unresolved story of the IRA must raise questions?
The searching discussions between two young brothers - Michael one year older than Kevin - took place in many households and come again to my mind. If we are to use the Good Friday Agreement to the full, it somehow seems as if we must face the whole extent of our heritage, according respect and ongoing remembrance to the position of each while allowing space for radical reappraisal. I think it was Michael Noonan who put it to his listeners that truth has a very cleansing effect. This century is in need of cleansing. - Yours, etc.
Una O'Higgins O'Malley,