Remembering the sons of Ulster
Remembrance Sunday and memories of such days in the North, particularly the last Remembrance Sunday spent there. The commemoration had an intensity, an indefinable quality, that lingers in the memory. The words were to be repeated and repeated.
Eleven o’clock at the War Memorial.
Half past eleven at church.
Three o’clock in the village, with those who had stood in the parade at eleven.
There was something almost hypnotic in the ceremony; the bugle tones cutting through the November chill as if the sounding of reveille would somehow change the script.
It wasn’t about the past; it was about the present.
The ranks of dark-coated men watched as a boy lay a wreath in memory of his father, shot dead on duty.
There were moments when I think I almost understood, but my English conscience would then blur my thoughts; those assembled saw the world differently. Had I been schooled in Calvinism, had I some appreciation of the concept of Election, had I understood those Old Testament stories, I might not have made so many mistakes.
Frank McGuinness, a Donegal Catholic, understood. His drama “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” captured the intensity, both of 1916, and of more recent times.
(They each begin to put on their Orange sashes. CRAIG watches PYPER, then takes his sash off, goes to MOORE, hands. it to him. MOORE hesitates, then exchanges his sash for CRAIG’s. At this there is an exchange of sashes, CRAWFORD’s for ANDERSON’S, MILLEN’S for MCILWAINE’S. ROULSTON goes to PYPER, who takes ROULSTON’S and gives him his own.)
PYPER: It’s come to this, Roulston?
ROULSTON: What’s decreed passes, Pyper.
PYPER: There’s no fight back?
ROULSTON: There’s just the fight.
PYPER: The good fight?
ROULSTON: The everlasting fight.
PYPER: Inside us?
ROULSTON: And outside us.
ROULSTON: No. You preach. (Silence. They wait.)
You believe. Believe. (Silence.)
PYPER: God in heaven, if you hear the words of man, I speak to you this day. I do it now to ask we be spared. I do it to ask for strength. Strength for these men around me, strength for myself. If you are a just and merciful God, show your mercy this day. Save us. Save our country. Destroy our enemies at home and on this field of battle. Let this day at the Somme be as glorious in the memory of Ulster as that day at the Boyne, when you scattered our enemies. Lead us back from this exile. To Derry, to the Foyle. To Belfast and the Lagan. To Armagh. To Tyrone. To the Bann and its banks. To Erne and its islands. Protect them. Protect us. Protect me. Let us fight bravely. Let us win gloriously. Lord, look down on us. Spare us. I love – . Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme. I love their lives. I love my own life. I love my home. I love my Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. (As the chant of ‘Ulster’ commences rifles and bayonets are raised. The chant turns into a battle cry, reaching frenzy).
It is sixteen years since I saw those November faces. Meeting them now on July days at the Somme, the old sense of confusion returns.
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