Irishmen in British uniforms
Madam, - Tom Cooper (September 1st) forcefully expresses his disdain for Irishmen in British uniforms, whom he sees as conniving in a long history of British oppression. But the warp and weft of personal family tradition is never quite so cut and dried. As we say in our Protestant family, Irish history is a twisted rope. It can bind us together, hang us, or guide us.
Not long after the second World War, my late father-in-law, Tom Stoney, was a senior pupil at Harrow School. Winston Churchill, who was a former pupil there, was paying a visit and a group of prefects were lined up to be presented to him. When Churchill reached Tom, his housemaster introduced him: "This is Thomas Stoney, from Co Mayo in Ireland.".
Churchill harrumphed and disdainfully remarked: "The bloody Irish, what have they ever done for our wars?" Tom, only 17 years old, drew himself to his full height and retorted: "Thanks to your wars, sir, I have no male relatives; no father - he died in the last war, and no uncle, he died in the Great War." Jaws dropped, and the housemaster bustled Churchill down the line of other blushing prefects.
A little while later, Tom was summoned to the housemaster's study, expecting a beating or worse. He found Churchill, who shook him solemnly by the hand and asked forgiveness for his intemperate remarks.
Tom, a gentleman and a rebel of ascendancy stock, became a Church of Ireland clergyman, and never owned a British passport. He was an Irishman, and his old passport was green. In his years as a priest in the North he confronted loyalist thugs, removing their barricades with his own hands from across the streets of his parish, and loudly played songs of the IRA on his gramophone at the open window of his rectory study window whenever the Protestant marching bands passed by on July 12th.
He was a very fine shot who learned his marksmanship from a worker on the family estate, one Larry McGovern, a commander of the West Mayo brigade of the IRA. He also honoured the sacrifice of his father and uncle, both of whom he never knew.
In 1916, my own great- grandfather, also a Church of Ireland clergyman, was confounded when his son was refused a commission in an English regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, because he came from Wexford. He wrote to the War Office and we have a copy of the letter still. It begins: "At a time when Ireland is accused of not pulling its weight in the great struggle against German militarism, I find it incredible that my son, winner of the All Ireland schools' engineering medal, is refused a commission in an English regiment because of his nationality."
Within a year, Fred was killed at Ypres leading a platoon of the Royal Irish Rifles against a German machine-gun position. He was 20 years old.
One day I may have to explain to my sons about the divided loyalties they inherit as proud little (Anglo-) Irishmen. So I will invite them to respect the sacrifice of soldiers of the old IRA, like family friend Larry McGovern, who fought for Irish freedom, and remember their own forebears in the British forces who died to make that freedom worthwhile; for an Ireland in a Europe ruled by fascists, communists and militarists would have had no freedom worth the name.
I will also go on to say that I give thanks that they, and all others like them, are alive in an age and in a country where they need not take up arms for any cause, no matter the uniform, no matter the flag. As I have explained to British friends, had Ireland joined the Allied side in the second World War, the wounds of the 1920s Civil War would have opened again in Ireland with terrible consequences.
The policy of Irish neutrality established at that time, and the Christian path of peace which informs it, remain causes well worth living for, whether son of the Planter, or son of the Gael. - Yours, etc,