Re-membering our history

Jun 30th, 2006 | By | Category: Sermons

Somme Commemoration

Saint Matthias’ Church, 7.30 am, 1st July 2006

“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory?” Haggai 2:3

During the years I lived in the North, I developed a dread of the 1st July. It was an occasion for youths in lurid uniforms to march through the streets, beating drums loudly and playing flutes badly. It was an opportunity for aggressive displays of sectarian spirit and seemed little connected with the events of July 1916 that were supposedly commemorated.

Remembrance when I was growing up in England was something that was unifying—we didn’t have much by way of religious division where I lived, there was the Church of England and that was about it, but we had a huge spread of social classes, yet remembrance would bring people together.

As we know, remembrance in Ireland has been something that has been divisive, something that we have used to exclude each other from history. As the years passed perceptions developed that certain sections of history belonged to one or other community. Most Protestants came to perceive the remembrance of the Easter Rising as something that concerned Catholics and most Catholics perceived commemoration of days like today and Armistice Day as something that concerned Protestants.

Sometimes people were deliberately written out of the script. I remember doing a radio interview with a member of a marching band in the North who told me that on 1st July 1916, the 36th (Ulster) Division had bought Ulster’s freedom with their own blood; there was no comprehension that there were huge numbers of Catholics and Nationalists on the Western Front. Other times the exclusion has been a much more passive process, perhaps it has often been the case that we have excluded ourselves rather than anyone actively telling us that we have no part in this history.

This process of exclusion meant that the complexity of the history of Easter 1916 was overlooked and that the complexity of the history of the Somme was overlooked. Sometimes we get so accustomed to stereotypes that we begin to believe them, we begin to believe that there are firmly drawn lines and assume that it must always be this way.

When I moved here from Co Antrim, I discovered that Remembrance Sunday was observed here in this church each year; I also discovered that there were members of the congregation who had serious reservations about it, regarding it as something to do with a past British connection. It has been important to stress strongly that it is not about political loyalties, but about remembering the past so that we can learn for the future.

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association work for an understanding of history that is inclusive of all traditions.

One of the focal figures for the Association is Tom Kettle, a man who embodies all the contradictions and all the complexities of 1916. Born in Artane and educated at Clongowes Wood and UCD, he was the son of Andrew Kettle, a leading Land League activist. He became a barrister in 1905 and was elected Nationalist MP for East Tyrone in 1906. He resigned his seat in 1910 having been appointed to the Professorship of National Economics in UCD the previous year. He joined the Irish Volunteers on their formation in 1913 and was in Belgium to procure arms when the First World War broke out. He took a commission in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was dismayed by the Easter Rising and the subsequent executions, volunteered for active service and was killed at Givenchy on the Somme in September 1916.

Hardly a man conforming to the picture some would present us with of the Somme being the sole preserve of collarette-wearing Orangemen, yet if we can understand something of the pressures and tensions and conflicts felt by Tom Kettle, we can understand some of the complexity of the history behind today and can understand why today is an anniversary for the whole island.

“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory?” the prophet Haggai asks his own people in the year 520 BC. He’s asking them who remembers the Temple in Jerusalem as it was, who remembers the history that made the people what they were.

This remembering in the Bible is not about nostalgia, it’s not about digging up obscure facts, it is about who his people were in the present. So our remembering today is not just about the past, it is about understanding who we are now, it is about seeking a history for the future where no-one is excluded, where no-one is written out of the script.

So much of our history has been about dismembering the past, about selectively reading history in order to strengthen our particular political position. To re-member can be about putting things back together; to put the members of our community back together as members of a single community, to put the elements of our history back together as a single history.

Perhaps by the time we get to 2016, to the centenary of the events of this year, those from Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist traditions will feel able to take a full part in the Easter Rising commemorations, while those from Catholic, Nationalist and Republican traditions will feel a sense of ownership of the Somme.

Ultimately, we all believe in liberty as a gift of God, we believe in the dream of Tom Kettle in his poem To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

“IN wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”

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