Tomorrow, I will be at Thiepval. I have been so often that those I know have grown tired of my stories, tired of my re-telling of what I believe those acres of land mean to the history of Ireland. Sure, what would an Englishman know anyway?
I was last there, at the Ulster Tower in April. The group were mostly from the Irish Midlands, but there were a few from the North, one of whom was experienced in radio drama. He and a Belfast friend read the closing lines of Frank McGuinness’ play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. The drama set on 1st July 1916 captured the intensity, perhaps of 1916, but also what that day has meant in more recent times. McGuinness’ play culminates with a prayer for victory:
(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).
Don’t anyone say they understand Ulster Unionism unless they have been to Thiepval and have felt the emotion of that place.