The BBC this evening reports links between a murder in Belfast last Friday and the UVF terrorist group.
To our daughter’s surprise, I admitted once to knowing a member of the UVF. It was back in the days of her Junior Certificate history when the course was covering the Larne gun running.
“Davey got his gun from Larne”, I said.
Miriam looked at me, how could anyone I knew have possibly been involved in getting a gun from Larne?
“It wasn’t a rifle, either. It was a German revolver. Local members of the Ulster Volunteer Force were told to go to a particular crossroads at a particular time. The guns were handed out and they were told to go home and hide them”.
“How can you hide a rifle when you are riding along on a bicycle?” Miriam asked.
I hadn’t thought about it. Davey would have just pushed his revolver inside his coat. Where would you have tied a rifle to conceal it from passing strangers while you rode along on a bicycle? Policemen must have turned blind eyes.
Davey had been a member of a volunteer battalion that drilled in the grounds of a local house. The drilling was something very public, to the extent that photographs were taken of the battalion standing in front of the fine Georgian house.
Reminiscing one day a couple of years after Davey’s death, Mary took out a photograph of the battalion. While Mary made the customary cup of tea and tray of sandwiches, I scanned the faces in the photograph. Rows of serious young men, unaware of the shadow that overhung the lives of everyone in Europe.
In the back row, at one point, the photographer had attempted to brush a figure out of the picture. His attempts had not been very successful, for a clergyman in a broad-brimmed black hat was clearly visible.
Mary came back in with the tea. “Who is the clergyman in the back row?” I asked.
Mary took the photograph and held it up to the light. “Oh dear”, she said, “that was Canon Pooler. He shouldn’t have been there”. Eighty years later and Mary felt the need to apologize that a local clergyman had been in the company of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
I wondered about her reaction. Two years later these young men would volunteer in their thousands to fight for the country that was legislating to be rid of them. In July 1916, thousands of them would be cut down at the Somme. No-one would have questioned it if Canon Pooler had been standing with them in France. Because a Government that cared little for them had declared war on a country about which they knew little, they were seen as different people.
Teaching history as it was, with all its paradoxes, painting everyone back into the picture, would allow a community to reclaim its past. It would also draw a dividing line between those who lie beneath the soil of France and Flanders and the criminality since the 1960s.