Have you forgotten yet? …

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Watching the commemorations at Thiepval for the Battle of the Somme which began 100 years ago today I was filled with nostalgia for a lost age: 22nd June 2016 – the day before my country voted to leave the European Union.

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I am familiar with this, and other, First World War cemeteries from several school trips to the battlefields.  My students read extracts from poems, plays and novels at the exact locations in France and Belgium where the terrifying violent events took place. This extract from The War Graves by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley is an example of what we read at Thiepval.

The headstones wipe out the horizon like a blizzard
And we can see no farther than the day they died,
As though all of them died together on the same day
And the war was that single momentous explosion.

Today, however, it was the great and the good who read extracts.  Shivering, rain-showered school children from France, Britain and Ireland, merely laid wreaths on each individual grave in the serried ranks of simple, fanned out stones.

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As the bugler played the Last Post tears issued from my eyes in concert with drops of rain squeezed from the lowering grey skies overhead.  The skies seemed to weep for the foolishness of those who promote nationalism above friendship and communal endeavour.  Those in power in both 1916 and 2016 are careless of those who are vulnerable.

Today our outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron, sat and stood shoulder to shoulder with the presidents of France and Ireland; a position which must have seemed ironic to others as well as me.

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Huw Edward’s, dignified and grave commentary did not, however, deal with this irony.  But it seemed obvious from Cameron’s shamed face and stance that he was grieving, not only for the millions of dead soldiers but for his own cowardly and destructive decision to call a referendum – mainly it seems to defeat Nigel Farage, who is not even a member of parliament, and whose disgusting party UKIP has only one representative in the House of Commons.

Simultaneously, back in London, having stabbed his erstwhile colleague, Boris Johnson, in the back, Michael Gove, a former education secretary (who was so hated by teachers that Cameron had remove him from his post) images.jpegattempted to bribe Conservative voters, with promises of money for the NHS, in his efforts to become an unelected prime minister.  I am ashamed of my country and its farcical leaders and, it is almost with glee that I watch them, across all political parties, self-destruct.  I am proud to be living in Ireland where the flag of the European Union still flies beside the trídhathach na hÉireann.  Not to say that the Irish have never been guilty of what Tisdall (see below) describes as ‘aggressively chauvinistic nationalism’.

I am filled with gloom and dread when I think of the future of my country and what may happen to the younger generation for whom, amongst other generations, the soldiers of the First World War fought.  In the Guardian Simon Tisdall paints a sorry picture of ‘England’s inexorable decline‘.

I am terrified by the current wave of racist attacks and slurs and by what may happen when those who voted to leave the EU find out that there is still a shortage of ‘proper’ jobs and reasonable housing.  I am terrified of what will happen when the cash-starved NHS cannot bring ex-pat nurses and doctors to heal the sick.  And I am terrified that when I am truly old there will be no kind Eastern European, South East Asian and African carers to watch over my failing body and mind.

As is so often the case I turn to W.B. Yeats for the necessary words:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Still, I’d like to be optimistic like Jeanette Winterson who wrote in the Guardian about a new story for England and a new party for the left.  I’m with her.  Three cheers for the Equality Party.

Works cited

Longley, M. The War Graves

Sassoon, S. Aftermath

Yeats, W. B. The Second Coming

 

Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War?

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Otto Dix Photo: Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum ©DACS 2014

For many years I taught a synoptic unit for examination at A level which was called Literature of and about the First World War. The three hour examination was unseen but required my students to have a wide-ranging background to provide context for their answers.  Teachers were free to choose what they taught and I changed my selections regularly as I discovered different poetry, plays and novels.  My favourite plays became Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuiness and To the Green Fields Beyond by Nick Whitby.

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To the Green Fields Beyond (Michael Brosilow Photography

The latter deals with a tank crew and is an astonishing piece of theatre opening with the eight comrades sitting beside a campfire (in this image the campfire is not good enough).  I like this sort of technical difficulty in a play, which is, perhaps, why I directed Anne Washburn’s post-electric Mr Burns last summer (see link for Irish references).  It also requires a burning campfire.  And the first play I ever directed, Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, had, on the second night, to be brought down during the first half when Pegeen’s peat fire threatened to cause a conflagration among the audience.  Another play, Bill Gallagher’s Darkle, demanded that my onstage actors kill, cook and devour an Alsatian dog.  Oh what larks! But I digress.

In 2005, after some years of teaching this course, Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way was published.  What a revelation!  I trashed Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration (both excellent novels) in favour of Barry’s masterpiece.  His hero, Willie Dunne, is an unreliable narrator; he is young and naïve, and unable to understand the complexities of Irish politics and British Imperialism.  He signs up to fight in Europe, mainly because, at under 6′ tall, he cannot join his father in the Metropolitan Police at Dublin Castle. Through Willie’s uncomprehending eyes, my students and I began to understand something about Ireland during the First World War.  We were, as Willie was, caught up in the Easter Rising.  We began to grasp something about John Redmond.  Barry’s description of a gas attack near St. Julien in 1915 is among the most gruelling accounts of the war that I have read.  His sections on ‘cowardice’ and field punishment, on baths behind the lines and on the vagaries and terrors of battle are, in my opinion, unequalled by any other writer.

Anyone who knows Barry’s work will be aware that he travels across genres, often connecting his works through characters’ siblings or parents, so that when you have read A Long Long Way you need to run through The Steward of Christendom, Annie Dunne, On Canaan’s Side, as well, perhaps, as other texts, unknown to me. These together build a strong picture of Ireland as it faces up to, or sidesteps, the First World War.  Some of Barry’s other works, such as The Secret Scripture, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Temporary Gentleman do the same job for the Second World War.  Most of these titles, however, work through and under both world wars, rather than focussing on one or the other. I am disappointed that Barry does not feature in the set texts of our Masters in Irish Writing and Film, as I regard him as an honest and fearless writer who is prepared to interrogate the concept of Irishness in the first half of the 20th Century especially in terms of the wars in which the Irish fought or chose not to fight.

As a putative Master of the Arts I am trained to look at Irish behaviour during the two world wars critically.  I also look at it from the point of view of a person whose grandfathers were both conscientious objectors in the First World War and whose pacifist father, decided to fight, in the artillery, against the evil of Hitler, in the Second World War.

McGuinness’s, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,  cleverly intermingles monologue, ensemble, and simultaneously  staged  two-hander scenes.  Dealing with the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the play moves between the battlefield and times back home in the North on furlough.  I will quote what is, in fact a prose poem, spoken by a number of characters:

Jesus, that’s it. The source of the strange smell. The river. The Somme? The Somme. How? It’s far – It carries for miles. It smells like home. A river at home. All rivers smell the same. Not your own river. I’ve never smelt a river. You can’t stop smelling a river. Anyway, do you not see why it’s starting to change smell? It’s bringing us home. We’re not in France. We’re home. We’re in our own territory. We’re fighting for home. This river is ours. This land is ours. We’re come home… the Bann is flowing outside. The Somme, it’s not what we think it is. It’s the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann –

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Hampstead Theatre production: image Imperial War Museum

 

This, from towards the end of the play is a scene, which moves me to tears.  I prepared this section, as well as the gas attack from Barry’s novel, for my students to perform in site-specific dramatised readings as we toured the battlefields of the First World War.

In 2006, horrified at the lack of memorials, commemorating the Great War, in Irish towns and villages, I wrote a piece for the Irish Examiner, entitled, Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War? Well, if you are looking for it, at least you can find it in A Long Long Way and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

P.S.  I meant to get more in about The Whereabouts of Eaneas McNulty and Foucault but this is already over 1000 words.  Another blog perhaps to ring in 2016, 100 years since the Easter Rising and 100 years since the Battle of the Somme.

Works cited:

Barker. P. Regeneration. 1991. London: Penguin.

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. 2005. London: Faber and Faber.

—. Annie Dunne. 2002. London: Faber and Faber.

—. On Canaan’s Side. 2011. London: Faber and Faber.

—. The Secret Scripture. 2008. London: Faber and Faber.

—. The Steward of Christendom. 2001. London: Methuen Drama.

—. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. 1998. London: Picador.

—. The Temporary Gentleman. 2014. London: Faber and Faber.

Gallagher, B. Darkle. N.d. TS.

Faulks, S. Birdsong. 1994. London: Vintage.

McGuiness, F. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. 1986.       London: Faber and Faber.

Synge, J.M. The Playboy of the Western World. 1907. New ed. 2011 London: Nick Hern Books.

Washburn, A. Mr Burns. 2014 London: Oberon Books.

Whitby, N. To the Green Fields Beyond.  2000. London: Faber and Faber.