Memories and Myths of the Somme

I had one of those incidents this week of remembering something that didn't happen. Don't fear, I haven't developed false memory syndrome, although I am sure we have all experienced a variety of that where an event when we were young has been talked about so vividly that we are convinced that we actually remember it ourselves even though it is unlikely (or perhaps even impossible as we weren't actually there)...
No, in this instance I was convinced that I had been to the previous production of the Lyric's "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme" only to find out subsequently that I couldn't possibly have been as I wasn't in the country at the time! However, I know I DID see a production of it (and I don't think it was the Abbey's original production in Dublin) before early 1987. I also know I didn't see it alone, as I was never sad enough to go to the theatre on my own, so if there is anyone out there who accompanied me to a production of this sometime in the mid 1980's please contact me so that I can fill in the gaps in my Swiss-cheese memory.
Anyway, all of that is a very long prologue to saying that I was at the Lyric Theatre last night for their timely revival (in conjuntion with Dublin's Abbey and others) of this challenging play, where the tormented memories of sculptor Ken Pyper are played out before us, by 8 sons of different parts of Ulster. It was, on the whole, a better production than the earlier one I saw (whatever production that was and wherever I saw it). The emotional power was profound, tying cast and audience together. 
For the second time in a week I had tears in my eyes at the sight of young men in the uniform ot the 36th Ulster Division... The previous time was watching the start of the Belfast County Orange Parade on the 12th July where they had a group of young men in uniforms marching along with wooden rifles on their shoulders, reminding those watching that many of those who joined up with the 36th Ulster Division were members of the Orange Order, who, en masse had, in turn, signed the Ulster Covenant, joined the UVF and subsequently went to serve in France. There was a certain irony in the the inclusion of this in the parade this year as, I believe (and in this I remain to be corrected, but my Dad told me, and on all things Orange he is my primary authority) they cancelled the Belfast parade on the 12th July 1916 out of respect for those who had died on the Somme. 
I unfortunately saw few of the official Somme Commemorations on the 1st July (and in Dublin a few days later) because of pastoral commitments, but the little bits I did see seemed to be moving and solemn, dealing lightly with the imperialism and militarism that had primed the fuse for that conflagration, of which the Somme seemed the epitome. But if we are to avoid repeating the errors of previous generations we need to not only commemorate the dead sensitively, but critique the context that led to their deaths. Yet dry academic debate is not the way to do it, because such debates rarely reach the parts of society that produce the foot soldiers in conflicts, be that conflict on the Somme, Iraq or the Shankill and Springfield Roads.
Plays such as "Observe the Sons of Ulster" have a role in such a critique, although a limited one given the reluctance of many in working class unionism to engage with theatre (especially a theatre in leafy BT9!). It was good to see Dan Gordon direct a production of it with Young Offenders a number of years ago, and if we had a Culture minister who was prepared to invest in the arts beyond instruments for marching bands, perhaps the time is right for a series of community workshops around the play, exploring the myths and reality of the battle and all that it represents 100 years on. I know there have been many other events run at a local and regional level, but I believe that many issues raised by this play air things that are rarely touched on in working class unionism.
There are many myths around the Battle of the Somme, and the role of the 36th Ulster Division in it... some of them with greater grounding in reality than others, and some of them included in the play, including the wearing of Orange sashes and collarettes as the troops went over the top, whilst the whole Battle has become a potent foundation myth of NI. There is no doubt that historically the service and sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division was used as an IOU by the political leaders of Unionism (just as Redmond believed that the service of the IVF could be used to further the cause of Home Rule) a But were the soldiers of the ground aware of the role they would subsequently play in the politics of the subsequent 100 years? One of the most haunting aspects of the play is the characters growing awareness that they were unlikely to come back. We have no real way of assessing whether McGuinness' play is an accurate reflection of the attitudes of the soldiers on the eve of that event... Even if there where survivors still to ask, their subseqent life experiences and the reflections of others on this most criticised of wars (with the possible exception of the more recent Iraq debacle) and most mythic of battles in the Northern Irish psyche would inevitably have altered their own memories. Diary entries may give us a better insight, but even then people are not always honest with themselves in putting things on paper. Certainly few at the would have committed to paper the desires that are portrayed in the Pyper/Craig relationship in the play. The shock value of this is undoubtedly less potent than it was 30 years ago (although I suspect that, ironically, it has lost less of its power in Ulster than it has in the rest of the UK or Ireland) but statistics suggest that the desire (if not the consumation) would not have been unlikely within the 36th Ulster Division... But memories of any real same-sex relationships are unlikely to be recorded... and so in that we rely on the work of playwrights to prompt us to remembering the unremembered. 
Which is why, when it came to remembering the centenary of the 1st July in our worship at Belfast South Methodist 2 days later, I focussed, not on the 36th Ulster Division, but, given that we were still in the midst of the Euros, the actions of Captain Billy Nevill of the 8th East Surrey Regiment, who, when the whistle blew at 7.30 am, kicked one of two footballs out into no-man's land. On it he had painted ‘The Great European Cup-Tie Final. East Surreys v Bavarians. Kick off at zero.’ He and his men followed it. They were one of the few regiments to take their objective that day… But not without the death of Captain Nevill, his second in command and many others in the regiment. The football was retrieved from the German barbed wire and retained as a trophy by the regiment.
The 8th East Surrey Regiment was only one of many other units who, together with the 36th Ulster Division, were slaughtered on that day, and for months afterwards on the fields of the Somme. 
And whilst we remember those Sons of Ulster who marched towards the Somme, it is important to remember the sons of Surrey and further afield... Those who didn't wear an Orange collarette as well as those who did... Those who fought for Ulster and for Ireland... Those who were gay (but who wouldn't have understood that anachronistic term) as well as the majority who weren't... And, most shocking of all, those on the receiving end of the charge... Who had sat under a week long artillery barrage only to emerge to shoot down the advancing sons of Ulster and elsewhere...
The Somme is much much bigger than us and our memories and myths about it... Thank you to those behind last night's production for reminding me of that...


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