Friday, 8 August 2014

The centenary of World War I

I haven't blogged in while as I've been away to Bruges on holiday. While in Belgium I also took the opportunity to visit my great-uncle Christy Flynn's grave in Boezinge, and to see the name of possibly another great-uncle, Christy's brother, inscribed on Menin Gate in Ypres. I say possibly as in the small town I'm from there were two sets of brothers both named Christopher and Patrick Flynn. Both sets of brothers fought and were killed in action in World War I. To further confuse matters both sets of brothers had a mother named Bridget and a sister named Anne/Annie. As a friend of mine recently commented, it appears names were rationed back then. I know that the Christopher, whose grave I went to see, was indeed the 'right' one as I'm in possession of his British War Medal, with his service number inscribed on the edge.

Sorting out the two Patricks is a process which is still ongoing. In fact a cousin of my Dad's routinely goes to both Menin Gate were one Patrick is remembered and to the Guards Cemetery in Lesboeufs, France where the other Patrick is buried.

I was happy to see our President Michael D. Higgins representing Ireland at the centenary ceremony in Belgium. He said that "it was wrong of Irish society at the time not to recognise the suffering of those Irish people who fought in the war" and "that perhaps they suffered in silence because they came home in the shadow of the execution of leaders of the 1916 Rising".
President Higgins also said the Irish were scattered across this experience of war and we must understand their role in it. After all total of 49,400 Irish died in the conflict.

I have seen much commentary regarding Ireland's participation in the centenary this year, and not all of it complimentary. Many people have referred to the men who went out to fight as 'fools' and referred to people like myself who want to commemorate these men in some way as 'proto-unionists'. People who make such comments forget that even their ancestors were regarded as citizens of the United Kingdom at the time. Researching family history has told me a lot, but not everything. For instance I don't know what political allegiance, if any, my great-uncles had. I don't know if they hoped that the war would be a way to bring about Home Rule in Ireland. I don't know if they fought because they believed it a just cause or not. I do know from family lore that their choice at the time was to enlist or starve, and that may have been all the motivation they needed. Regardless, they went to war, they lost their lives, and they, I believe, deserve to be commemorated.

President Higgins "I think the significance of the heads of state coming together on the anniversary of World War One is an opportunity to recognise the catastrophe the war was," he said. He said the anniversary also provided an opportunity to ask the question how countries could drift into war and how it could expand to the point at which it consumed a generation that had such promise.

I know very little about my great-uncles, but I have a keen interest in history and family history. So it was when I realised how close we would be to Boezinge and Ypres, I took the opportunity to see Christy's grave and one Patrick's commemoration. Many people told me that it would be quite a moving experience, and while I can sometimes border on the sentimental, I didn't quite get it until I went there. They day we went out was the 28th July, also Christopher's 97th anniversary. It took us quite a while to get a taxi in Ypres, and the one we did eventually get wanted to know if we had a map! Eventually with the help of Google he made it out to Artillery Wood Cemetery.
Stepping into the marshy ground in a pair of ill-advised flip flops, I thought about my great-uncles and what they might have gone through. I thought about their sister Annie, my great-grandmother receiving news of their deaths and I thought about how nobody in the family at the time would have had the money to go and see their graves.

I opened the guest book encased at the gate and saw that I was not the first Athy native to be there even this year. It was a sombre and moving experience, but it didn't really hit me until we got back into the taxi to leave. Then it felt like I was leaving him behind, in a strange country.

From Artillery Wood we went back to Ypres to see Menin Gate and the name of one of the Patrick's inscribed there. Menin Gate is a towering, impressive looking sight and inscribed on all the walls are the names of the many, many men who were missing in action. The crowds were arriving for the Last Post which is played every night at 8pm and has been since 1922. We saw one Patrick's name, the L in Flynn having worn away somewhat.

Upon my return home to Ireland I saw that President Higgins had been heckled while giving his speech unveiling the Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery. The Cross is the first of it's kind to be erected in Ireland.
President Higgins said "On an occasion such as this we eliminate all the barriers that have stood between those Irish soldiers whose lives were taken in the war, whose remains for which we have responsibility, and whose memories we have a duty to respect".

That's what it comes down to, these men are ours, all 49,400 of them. The least we can do is show our respect.

In memory of Corporal Patrick Flynn, 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, who died on the 14th September 1916.
Private Patrick Flynn, 8th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who died on the 11th August 1917
Private Christopher Flynn, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, who died on the 28th July 1917

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