Paintings by Sheila Gallagher
In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
(Seamus Heaney, “In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge”)
A YEAR of double remembrance for the Irish, 2016 marks the centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising against Britain, when almost 500 Irish citizens died, and it commemorates the Battle of the Somme in Flanders, in which 3,500 Irish expired in a single day fighting in British uniform against Germany.
The Irish martyrs of the Dublin Rising are typically remembered by the wearing of a white Easter lily, symbol of death and rebirth. Those who died at the Somme are honored with a red and black poppy. But in the last hundred years you would be hard put to find a single Irish person wearing both.
Why? Because Official History after 1916 decreed you could not be Irish and British at once. A binary logic of either/or trumped a dialectical one of both/and. The complex muddle of events was replaced by Grand Narratives of opposed nations. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty divided the island of Ireland into North (six counties) and South (26 counties). A bitter civil war followed, after which Northern Ireland pledged continuing loyalty to Britain — the majority of its citizens, known as Loyalists or Unionists, proclaiming a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.” Southern Ireland, for its part, proclaimed itself a free independent state, known as Éire and, later in 1948, as a republic. Its majority identified as nationalist and Catholic, with Gaelic its first national language.
In the late 1960s, the North of Ireland erupted into a 30-year cycle of sectarian violence between Loyalist Protestants, seeking to remain within the United Kingdom, and Nationalist Catholics, who aspired to a United Ireland. And since sovereignty is “one and indivisible” (Rousseau), you could not have both a United Kingdom and a United Ireland. The respective constitutional claims of both nations were incompatible, resulting in the protracted “Ulster Troubles” witnessed throughout the world media. Bobby Sands, iconic IRA hunger striker, faced off against Margaret Thatcher, who ruled Britannia’s waves from Ulster to the Falklands. Although the Anglo-Irish Peace Agreement of 1998 brought a significant degree of settlement to the island, there are still over 300 so-called “peace walls” in Northern Ireland, separating communities along purely sectarian lines; and over 80 percent of education remains religiously segregated.
This is why commemorating 1916 is a drama. The options are decisive. Either one repeats the divisive narratives of militarist history (British versus Irish, Loyalist versus Nationalist, North versus South), or one complicates and pluralizes memory by retrieving stories of “crossed identity” — for example, tales of siblings, neighbors, friends, and lovers, who found themselves on opposite sides at that historic moment. As Brian Friel writes in his play Translations, “confusion is not an ignoble condition.” The enemy of genuine commemoration is not complexity, but certitude. Or, as the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney said of his own dual upbringing on the Irish border: “Two buckets are easier carried than one. / I grew up in between.”
This between is all important. In this centenary year several writers, artists, and historians are engaging in a therapeutic work of “recovery.” This involves, among other things, reenacting repressed stories of 1916 involving brothers in arms wearing opposite uniforms in Dublin and the Somme. These crossed narratives were neglected for generations because they didn’t fit the neat categories of Monumental History (Irish or British). Recovering them now means giving voice to traumas consigned to silence for decades. The events of 1916 were not just acts of warfare, but also acts of imagination — promissory notes often unrealized in history.
For example, the multimedia performance Twinsome Minds (Kearney/Gallagher) reenacts a number of criss-crossing narratives of 1916 that unfolded in the streets of Dublin during the Easter Rebellion and on the World War I battlefields of Flanders and France. By mixing images of white Easter lilies with blood red poppies, Irish Rebel songs (“The Foggy Dew”) with World War I songs (“Keep the Home Fires Burning”), and by recounting stories of doubled and conflicted fidelities, the project aims to show how narrative exchange may respond to historical trauma with a healing of image and word.
Genuine commemoration means attending to both what happened and what did not. The past is not only what has passed, but what lives on in memory, thanks to arrows of futurity which misfired or whose trajectory was interrupted. As Paul Ricoeur reminds us, history is more than what has taken place and cannot be changed; it equally involves potential futures still dormant in the past. It is especially the founding events of a community that require reimagining, at critical moments, in order to unlock their unfinished possibilities. Genuine remembrance involves a return, not just to moments of military glory, but to dreams forfeited by history. It signals a work of anticipatory memory.
A signal feature of the 1916 Rising was that many of its lead actors were men and women of extraordinary creative imagination — poets and playwrights, artists and editors, runners of literary salons, theaters, experimental schools, and publishing houses. We might mention figures like Pádraig Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, Arthur Griffith and Sean McDermott, the Gore-Booth and Sheehy sisters. Half the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation in Dublin had their own literary-intellectual journals. The Easter Rising declared not only military independence but also what W. B. Yeats called “an Ireland / the poets have imagined.”
And yet 1916 was, in many respects, a failed dream. Both for the Irish who died in Ireland (fighting against Britain) and for those who died in Flanders (fighting with Britain). This failure is complex, but may be partially understood, I think, in terms of a threefold trauma.
First, there was the sheer immensity of loss — the insufferable pain of war. Dublin, the elegant second city of the Empire, was reduced to rubble in Easter Week, with soldiers and civilians dying horrific deaths. Meanwhile, in Flanders, some 40,000 Irish in British uniform endured appalling carnage — part of a “world war” of unprecedented proportions, which saw 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. For the Irish the killing occurred in two places simultaneously: at home and abroad.
Second, there was the confusion of friends and enemies. The notion of frères ennemis took on new meaning in 1916. Countless Irish relatives found themselves fighting on different sides, often wearing uniforms made from the same Dublin tailors! Same wool, same stripes, same buttons, same braid — only the color was different. Olive green for the Irish Volunteers in Dublin; dun brown for the Royal Fusiliers in Flanders. There are stories of brothers looking at two posters on the same street — one calling for an Irish Republic, the other recruiting for British King and Country — before enlisting in opposite armies. Other accounts tell of siblings exchanging flags and fidelities, shooting or saving each other in the flame of battle. And there is even the tale of Royal Irish Fusiliers during the Rising, who shot fellow British Officers firing at women stealing bread from a Dublin Mill: the incident was hushed up by British High Command, who dared not admit of mutiny in the ranks. This was a time of conflicting commands and counter-commands, a moment when the mess of leadership — on both sides — led to such chaos that the identity of wounded and wounder was often blurred. It is hard to commemorate contradiction.
Third, 1916 suffered from a failure to properly mourn. The death of thousands of Irish in British uniform in World War I was not publicly acknowledged in the new independent Ireland; the wearing of the poppy was unpopular, if not forbidden, south of the border. Those cheered as heroes when sailing to Flanders in 1914 were often treated as traitors on their return to Ireland in 1918, with many deeply maimed for life (alcoholism and suicide were rampant). And as for those who stayed home and died in the Rising, there were, to be sure, official state commemorations by the new Ireland; but this quickly became a canonization of a few National Martyrs, whose sacrificial glory meant that ordinary civilian casualties — including women and children — went largely unmourned. Those caught in the crossfire were easily forgotten.
There are important stories of transgnerational recovery finding voice in this centenary year. As one lifts the veils of shame and silence many tales of crossed identity are returning to light. One of the most telling of these, I believe, is the story of Francis Ledwidge.
Ledwidge was an Irish poet caught in the crossfire of British-Irish conflict only to be retrieved decades later by his compatriot, Seamus Heaney. A Catholic laborer from the Irish Midlands, Ledwidge sided with the Irish volunteers in the lead-up to 1916 before enlisting in the British Army. He was persuaded by the Irish Parliamentary Party that fighting with Britain would help achieve Home Rule, as promised by London, declaring that “he could not stand aside while others sought to defend Ireland’s freedom.” Ledwidge was motivated by a noble, if ultimately unfulfilled dream.
Ledwidge was killed at Boezinge, Flanders, in July 1917. It was the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, and he was serving with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Aged 29, he was having a tea break when struck by German artillery. He fell at a place called Le Carrefour de la Rose. A chaplain who knew him, Father Devas, recorded: “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.”
Today Ledwidge’s grave is inscribed with lines from his own poem, “Lament for Thomas McDonagh,” a famous 1916 rebel whose execution by the British in Dublin prefigured Ledwidge’s own slaughter by the Germans in Flanders. Ledwidge and McDonagh wore opposite uniforms, but they were brothers at heart:
He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky where he is lain,
Nor the voices of the sweeter birds,
Above the wailing of the rain.
In another poem from Flanders, “Lament for the Poets of 1916,” Ledwidge confessed deep empathy for the dreams of the Dublin “martyrs” at a time when Ireland oscillated between being a country and a nation. If nation was construed as a political ideal, country was a place of natural elements and multiple living things — birds, flora, rivers, trees, people. Ledwidge celebrates country as a shared landscape existing before and beyond borders.
Sixty years on, Seamus Heaney composed a powerful elegy to Ledwidge. Written at the height of the Ulster Troubles, Heaney recognizes a mirror-image in this conflicted poet. He reimagines Ledwidge forlorn in Belgian trenches, which Heaney compares to passage-graves of the sacred Boyne Valley in Ireland where Ledwidge grew up. Heaney cites Ledwidge lamenting his split between the Britain he serves in Flanders and the Ireland he has left behind with no “place among the nations but the place of Cinderella.” He enters the mind of Ledwidge thus:
I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform,
A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,
Ghosting the trenches with a bloom of hawthorn
Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave.
… a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres:
“To be called a British soldier while [your] country
Has no place among nations …”
Heaney locates Ledwidge’s identity crisis in the double culture in which he was reared; and he concludes his poem by identifying these “strains” of crossed loyalty as both a conflict in Irish-British politics and a cleft in Ledwidge’s own psyche — a double split that tore him to shreds as brutally as the shrapnel from German guns.
You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later …
I hear again the sure confusing drum
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you consort now underground.
Heaney imagines here different soldiers marching to different tunes, all reconnected through underground passage-graves joining Boyne (Ireland) to Boezinge (Belgium). And, curiously, it is to a similar Boyne connection that another contemporary Irish author, Frank McGuinness, alludes in his play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, a drama in which a troupe of Northern Irish Protestants prepare for battle against the Germans. Facing the river Somme on the first of July 1916, the young Ulstermen recall that on that same day in 1690 their forefathers faced the river Boyne back in Ireland: one of the most historic dates in Irish history, as the Protestant King William did battle with the Catholic King James for the Kingdoms of England and Ireland. Repeating that decisive political moment they imagine the river Somme as the river Boyne taking them home on the day of their demise. Common country before conflicting nations. (The drama is to be enacted by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre on the site of the Somme in Belgium on July 1, 2016.)
The poets — Heaney, Ledwidge, McGuinness — remind us that Ireland is an island beside an island, part of an archipelago connected by waterways, which make us all “mongrel islanders.” “We are what we are, mongrel pure,” as the poet Tom Kinsella remarked. The key is in the mixing, the middling, the crossing of the between, which Heaney calls a “symbolic reordering of Ireland,” open to new possibilities of “Irishness, Britishness, Europeanness, planitariness, creatureliness, whatever …”
Such symbolic reconfiguring requires that one distinguish between good and bad commemoration — between what Freud called the healing work of “mourning” and the pathology of “melancholy.” Between remembering backward (addicted to repetition compulsion) and remembering forward (alert to futures of the past). In sum, between memories that incarcerate and memories that emancipate.
This is an urgent task today, not just for Ireland and Britain, but for any country — the United States included — that carries unresolved civil war wounds in its psyche. Working across generations, the retrieval of unfinished stories invites us to transmute trauma into drama so that unspoken pain may be converted into narrative healing. Trauma refers to “wounds” so deep they could not be processed at the time and call for a later “working through” in images and words — after the event, après coup. Regarding 1916, the metamorphosis of history into story achieves catharsis by turning ghosts into ancestors. The phantoms need to be laid so that complex living persons — like Francis Ledwidge and the sons of Ulster — may return and their dreams of homecoming be honored.
Good commemoration, I am suggesting, offers a way beyond either/or binaries toward an inclusive culture of both/and. A double remembrance of 1916 can recall the Dublin Rising and the Somme together; and thus surpass endemic polarities — Unionist versus Nationalist, poppy versus lily, Protestant versus Catholic — so that Ireland and Britain may collaborate on a much larger stage. The movement beyond British-Irish enmity found timely voice in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (signed by both London and Dublin), allowing citizens of Northern Ireland to identify as “British or Irish or both.” The word both is crucial here: a term too long ignored by the official ideologies of both nations. It is the excluded middle that takes the gun out of Irish-British politics and gives a future to the past.
Richard Kearney holds the Charles Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College.