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Forgotten Heroes

Forgotten Heroes

During Tom Phelan's residency at the Princess Grace Irish Library, he met students from Lycée Albert I (combined class 1ères ES1 & L1) and their English teacher Suzanne d'Aumale. Happy to answer the students' questions, the tables were turned at the end when Tom decided to interview the interviewers! He concluded: “It was my pleasure to meet with such a polite and attentive group of Monaco lycée students. Somehow, their French ears and my Irish accent made a good dancing couple. I was delighted to hear that so many of the students had read works written in English in the original, not in translation. Keep at it, girls and boys! In the end, it is you who are responsible for your own education. Aim high. You will be as good as you want to be.”

Forgotten Heroes – Ireland's World War One Soldiers: Tom's talk for the Friends of the Library — including readings from his novel The Canal Bridge — started with an observation about the wearing of poppies. Some years ago, Tom and his wife Patricia were flying from Manchester to Dublin on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. As they pulled their suitcases across the airport concourse, the eleventh hour was announced and everything came to a halt. For two minutes, silence reigned throughout the United Kingdom to remember the men and women who had died in WWI. As Tom and Patricia observed the two-minute silence, he remembered the WWI veterans he knew as a child in Mountmellick in Ireland… all old soldiers upon whom shame was heaped when they came home from the war in 1918. When Tom and Patricia arrived in Mountmellick later that day, still wearing their poppies, a woman pointed and said, “We don't wear those here.” What she was saying was that in Ireland nobody commemorates the 220,000 Irishmen who fought in WWI nor do they commemorate the 38,000 (or more) who died in that war. Whilst throughout the empire, the poppy had become a symbol of everything related to WWI because of John McCrae's poem “In Flanders Fields,” in Ireland the poppy was synonymous with pro-Britishness, not with the war dead.

Tom's talk was based around the question “Why did so many Irishmen fight for England after such a long period of difficult relations between the two countries?” He explained that long before WWI, thousands of Irishmen had fought with the British all over the Empire. Irishmen had fought with Henry V at Agincourt in 1415; the Irish suffered great losses in Crimea; 40 percent of the British army at Waterloo were Irish. But why, when the Irish in general were becoming, by way of Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davit, more aware of their own nationality, did they still queue up to join the British army in 1914? There were six reasons:

1.     Two days after the Home Rule Bill was passed, John Redmond made a short speech at Woodenbridge in County Wicklow and encouraged the Irish Volunteers to fight for England. He said, It would be a disgrace for ever if young Ireland confined her efforts to remaining at home to defend her shores.”

2.     In a later speech, Redmond encouraged men from the south to enlist and fight side by side with men from the north, which would in turn help them settle Home Rule differences and difficulties when the war was over.

3.     From the pulpits, priests exhorted young men to go fight the Hun who was burning libraries, raping nuns and bayoneting Catholic babies in Belgium. The propaganda machine is an old machine.

4.     Many men joined up for a day's pay. There was great poverty in the country and labouring men on farms depended on fine weather for their work.

5.     Many Catholics as well as Protestants joined up out of patriotism to England.

6.     The priests' preaching and Redmond's speech at Woodenbridge gave permission to the thousands of hungry, unemployed young men itching for adventure, to join the British army without social condemnation. These recruits worried that the fighting would be over before they got a chance to go to Europe.

In The Canal Bridge, someone says that if all the grief of the First World War could be compressed into a bomb, it would destroy the whole world when it exploded. One writer said that the Irish WWI soldiers were overtaken by events, and were retrospectively castigated for flying in the face of a reality which did not exist when they made their choices. The returnees were told they had fought on the wrong side, had taken the King's shilling. When the veterans wore the poppy on Armistice Day, the emblems were ripped out of their lapels by fellow Irishmen.

When they tried to build a memorial in Merrion Square, Kevin Higgins speaking for the Cosgrave government, denied them the monument so close to the heart of the city on the grounds that people might believe “the origins of this state were based on the soldiers' sacrifice.” It was these words that pushed the veterans of WWI to the edge of Irish history. The magnificent Irish National War Memorial Gardens, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, were eventually built in Islandbridge well off the beaten path.

About five hundred people died in the Easter Rebellion – eighty of them rebels. About 38,000 Irishmen from north and south died in the war in Europe and more than a few of those believed they were fighting for the future of a free Ireland.

Now that the passions of the times have cooled, the children and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the veterans have erected several monuments around the country. More are in the planning stage. Perhaps in another few years the people of the Republic of Ireland will take as much pride in wearing the poppy as they do in wearing the Easter lily; perhaps at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the churches of Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, will ring out harmoniously to honour all the people who have died in different arenas for the freedom of their children and descendants.

Tom Phelan saw a glimmer of the dream struggling to become a reality in September 1999 when he and his wife were visiting the Menin Gate in Ypres and came across a delegation from 'the North': “You had come to Belgium to lay wreaths on soldiers' graves and at the monuments erected in their memory. Young men you were, former members of the security forces in Ulster. You knew by my accent that I was from 'the South' and I told you about the men from Mountmellick. As we shook hands, you told us that in the laying of wreaths you were honouring the dead, not because of where they had come from but because of where they were.”

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