The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War, by Turtle Bunbury, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 2014
Defending my community, The HUBB ‘Prison to Peace’ Social History Project
Turtle Bunbury’s book about the Great War is a great read, a dramatic confection of remarkable stories about remarkable events and individuals slapped together with great dexterity and professionalism. The photographs are gruesome and, by contrast, the contemporary illustrations, particularly the full colour ones of maps and battle scenes, so sensuous they would not be out of place on a box of chocolates. This is military history as entertainment on a scale we have not seen since, well, the First World War.
When I was growing up after the Second World War there were still copies of War Illustrated lying around from its predecessor. It was immensely popular at the time, so popular that it reappeared for the rematch with the Third Reich, although the horror of the first round was still so fresh in the collective memory that the Second World War edition toned down the jingoism quite a bit. There are no such inhibitions here.
It is probably inevitable, when a book is so embedded in contemporary popular culture and indeed many private accounts of the war that it will reflect the outlook and values of the time. The author is however, so enthralled by the story that he allows it to carry him away. I have no doubt it will have the same effect on many readers, who will be delighted to immerse themselves in the romance of it all.
Perhaps that is inevitable. It is based primarily on the narratives of “nuns, artists, sportsmen, poets, aristocrats, nationalists, nurses, clergymen and film directors”. That’s what the blurb says and this is one book that can be judged by its cover. There are plenty of soldiers as well, and airmen and even a few sailors, but the vast majority are officers. This is probably equally inevitable given that ordinary soldiers left relatively little by way of memorabilia behind them.
My own paternal grandfather was in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was invalided out in the Boer War, which probably saved him in 1914, when he would almost certainly have been a reservist otherwise and recalled to the colours. I have no photographs or anything else of his, nor have I of his wife, my grandmother. He died young, so she had to rear three sons on a war widow’s pension. Photographs were probably a luxury she could do without.
I cannot say I feel particularly aggrieved as a result. This imbalance in historical memory is not unique. I suspect also that the vast majority of people reading books like Turtle Bunbury’s about the Great War today will more easily be able to identify with the middle class values and sensibilities of the officer class because they share them. To a great extent we are all middle class now in our social aspirations if not in our economic status. While I was browsing through Bunbury’s book, and it is an entertaining anthology of articles rather than a narrative, I attended a workshop in Liberty Hall on “Partners in Catalyst” organised by community groups based in Dublin’s north inner city and loyalists in Belfast. It looked at why so many working class men in both cities joined the British army between 1914 and 1918 – they made up roughly forty per cent of all Irish recruits. While it was interesting in itself the most illuminating aspect of it for me came quite by chance when I picked up a copy of “Defending the community” there. This small pamphlet is based on anonymous interviews with members of the Third Battalion of the UVF in Tiger Bay. It said far more about human conflict and its effects on individuals and families in this country than a hundred Bunbury blockbusters.
There was no introduction by an academic or politician to “contextualise” it; there was no self-serving apologia by some senior loyalist paramilitary to justify the battalion’s activities. It was the unvarnished version of paramilitary conflict in the modern age; no more, or less than a series of quotes based on interviews with men who joined the UVF, many of whom served time and committed serious crimes. Reading it I realised for the first time that they were just like us, by which I mean paramilitaries on the other side of the fence. By and large Belfast paramilitaries are not revolutionaries so much as community activists with guns, mobilised by a perceived threat, real or otherwise, to that community. It does a disservice to them and is counterproductive to dismiss them as thugs and gangsters, although elements of both have been present in paramilitary groups of all persuasions during the recent Troubles.
I have met loyalists before but always briefly and cannot claim to have more than a nodding acquaintance with any of them; so I never had a conversation where barriers came down or conversations got beyond the platitudes expressed over a pint or a cup of tea. (More often a cup of tea at my age.) The anonymity of the printed word removes such obstacles. What struck me most was that although many of them feel betrayed by the peace process there was no animosity towards Catholics as such, just to “republicans”, that much abused word. Nor was there much by way of remorse. As one volunteer put it, “I stand over everything that I done and I believe I was right.”
To some extent the enthusiasm of these men to attend these workshops, rediscover and retrace their roots to the original UVF and the 36th Division is driven by a search for legitimacy and vindication. The process is not so very different from the roots of the Gaelic revival a hundred years ago when young nationalists sought to legitimise their aspirations for the future. Whether it will be a productive exercise today is another matter. One important difference is that they are meeting “republicans”, socialising with them, discovering or reaffirming shared experiences and beliefs.
I suppose the paragraph that stood out most for me was from a volunteer who said:
I was always taught that I was an anti-terrorist who used terrorist techniques to gain his objective; and although it sounds at odds with the use of terror, that objective was always to achieve peace and reconciliation in this country. And it worked, eventually the other side said this can’t go on, this is futile, it’s just tit-for-tat. They walked behind coffins just as much as we did.
Thousands of books will be written over the next few years poring over every detail of the Great War, all the way from the effects of trench foot on ordinary soldiers to the inner workings of Earl Haig’s brain. Oceans of crocodile tears will be shed and millions of euro expended and reaped from the cash registers, all under the stern admonition of “never again”. But there is a certain futility in trying to relearn the lessons of an obsolete conflict from a reimagined past when there are plenty of people here, and elsewhere, in the world who can bear living witness to the lessons of war as it is experienced now.
One factor inhibiting such a discussion in Ireland is the absence of an amnesty. There is a downside to amnesties, in that the perpetrators go free, but anyone who has killed or maimed anyone else and remains a human being never goes entirely free. Such a step would also facilitate the prosecution of former paramilitaries accused of serious crimes that had nothing to do with the armed struggle, such as rape. Paradoxically the concepts of collective guilt, or common purpose, can as easily protect the guilty as convict the innocent.
My only regret is that I did not get more copies of “Defending my community” in Liberty Hall that day. They are free and published by The HUBB Community Resource Centre, 30 St Aubyn Street, Belfast BT15 3QF.
Padraig Yeates is a journalist and author whose books include A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 and A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921.