Archive for the ‘Irish history & folklore’ Category

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – Spring into Summer, 1917.   Leave a comment

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The tale of the Allied Campaign of 1917 in the West was one of difficult beginnings, successes which led nowhere, and desperate battles which all but broke the hearts of their participants. As a diversion from the imminent French Nivelle Offensive, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander troops attacked Arras on 9th April. They captured the Vimy Ridge which was strategically important and proved to be an invaluable gain the following year. The first days were successful, but as so often on the Western Front, Haig’s offensive slowed and was only continued for political reasons, to support the ailing French. He was compelled to continue long after the attack was fruitless.

On 16 April, French commander Robert Nivelle struck on the Aisne, with a poor tactical scheme and no chance of surprise, since the enemy had captured his papers and knew his plans in detail. The Germans had been able to strengthen and position their forces accordingly. The French suffered a costly check and for a little it seemed as if their strength might melt away. Nivelle had promised a breakthrough at Chemin des Dames that would finish the war. It was not to be, with the French Army suffering 90,000 casualties on the first day’s fighting.

Disgruntled at yet another defeat and more lives lost needlessly, troops mutinied in over half the French divisions. The front line was left weakly defended but French commanders were able to keep the unrest secret from both their allies and the enemy. At one point, it was believed that there were only two loyal divisions between the Germans and Paris.

Meanwhile, Hill 145 was the highest part of the Vimy Ridge and the objective for the Canadian Corps, fighting as a complete unit for the first time, Their careful preparations, accurate artillery fire and tenacious fighting found success where other offensives had failed. In 1915, the French had lost 150,000 casualties there. On this occasion the Canadians suffered 10,000 casualties, half that of the Germans. Their success was a major boost for the Allies and it had a longer-lasting effect in helping engender a feeling of nationhood amongst Canadians.

Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who restored confidence and order, the greatest achievement of a fine soldier. Forty-three mutineers were shot and the French soldiers were marched past the executed men as an incentive to keep their discipline. But it took Pétain all summer to nurse his armies back to health, and in the meantime the British troops had to bear the brunt of campaign alone. On average, they lost 4,175 men every day at Arras, the highest experienced in any single battle.

By the summer of 1917, on the home front, the British Women’s Land Army had over 260,000 women working as farm labourers, allowing male agricultural workers to be released for military service. This enabled the strength of the British Army on the Western Front to reach 1,700,000 that summer. At a Conference in May, a confident Lloyd George had promised the French that no respite would be given to the Germans.

At Messines in June, the British Army carried out a perfect model of a limited advance. The battle was a preliminary to a major offensive planned for Flanders. It began with a week-long heavy bombardment by the British artillery before large underground mines were detonated. Lloyd George, who was staying in Surrey, asked to be woken early on 7 June, in time for ‘zero hour’ detonation of the 19 mines, containing 420 tons of explosives. He heard the ‘tremendous shock’ at 3.10 a.m. Ten thousand German troops were estimated to have died in the explosion, which created craters of between 140 and 260 feet in diameter. British troops then advanced alongside tanks, supported by closely controlled artillery. It was a major success for the British Army with the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge easily taken and German counter-attacks repulsed. However, there was a cost of over 26,000 British and ANZAC troops. It was soon after described to John Buchan as the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war. But neither the politicians nor the generals would allow the Army to rest on its laurels for a while, so Haig turned the offensive towards the Belgian coast, which had always been his main plan.

In a united front, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions, comprised respectively of Catholics and Protestants from the island, fought side by side to take the town of Wytschaete. In 2007 two memorial stones were placed on either side of the road, inscribed with the name of each division and the words Irish comrades-in-arms. In total around 140,000 Irishmen enlisted, with over 35,000 fatalities. The battle ended on 14 June.

In the meantime, following a raid on the English coastal town of Folkestone towards the end of May by Zeppelins, 162 people were killed in a raid on London on 13 June by 26 Gotha bombers. Over four hundred were injured in what was the worst raid of the war. The Gothas were heavy bombers able to fly in the daytime or at night and were a bigger threat to the civilian population than the much-feared Zeppelins, which were susceptible to bad weather and presented a larger and less well-defended target to British fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery. During the war as a whole, the number of people killed in aircraft raids on Britain totalled 857 with a further 2,058 injured, whereas 557 were killed by Zeppelins, with 1,358 wounded. Losses and injuries would have been greater had it not been for ‘The Black Flight’, a highly successful unit of the Royal Naval Air Service, which shot down 87 German aircraft. Each Black Flight aircraft’s forward fuselage was painted black and given an individual name, such as:

Black Maria-Black Roger-Black Death-Black Sheep-Black Prince.

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The specifications and details of ten German and Allied aircraft are given in the table below, followed by the statistics relating to the top ten ‘aces’ of the war:

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On 17 July a royal proclamation was issued:

We out of our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce, Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor.

The previous name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha arose from the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840, but it felt insensitive for the royal family to have German names amidst a world war in which Gotha aircraft bombing London. On hearing the news, the German Kaiser, Queen Victoria’s grandson, joked that he wanted to see the Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Compared with the stories of the events of 7-14 June, the story of the battle of a hundred days which began on 31 July was a far more melancholy one. The battle is known as Third Ypres, or Passchendaele. There was some merit in its conception, but little in its execution, wrote Buchan. The aim of the offensive was to break through the German lines and drive northwards to the coastal ports from which the German U-boats were reported to be operating and to take railway hubs.

On the first day it started to rain heavily. The bad weather continued, turning the battlefield into a quagmire; artillery fire had destroyed the field drainage systems. This made early success, as at Messines, impossible, and it continued long after the mud-holes and ridges aimed at had lost all strategic relevance. The battle dragged on, with Field Marshal Haig determined to persevere despite little being achieved. This time the German defence showed great tactical ingenuity, but their strength was strained to its utmost and their fangs against France were, for the moment, drawn, since this cruellest action of the war cost them 300,000 men. Buchan commented, with perhaps not  an insignificant touch of irony:

Whatever the reason for the tragic prolongation – the uneasiness of the French, the inelasticity of our military machine – one alleged cause may be ruled out, the personal vanity of Haig. Such was not the nature of the most modest and single-hearted of men.

The mud at Passchendaele made for atrocious living conditions. If a soldier slipped off wooden duckboards into a shell hole it was difficult for him to be extricated and orders were given that men who got into such difficulties were to be left. One soldier fell and was abandoned. When the platoon returned a few days later they found him, still alive but having suffered a nervous collapse, with the mud now up to his neck.

It wasn’t until 6 November that the ruined village of Passchendaele was finally taken by the Canadians. It was claimed that the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but at a cost many found too high. The British Army suffered 275,000 casualties for five miles of territory. One piece of land, ‘the Inverness Copse’ changed hands nineteen times over the course of the battle.

At 4.45 a.m. on 16 August, Allied forces attacked at Langemarck. Amongst the troops was Private Harry Patch of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He survived the battle but was wounded a month later by shell shrapnel when three of his Lewis machine-gun team were killed. He returned to Britain, where he convalesced until the end of the war. He went on to become the last British survivor of the trenches. Private Patch refused to talk about his experiences of war until he reached the age of a hundred, and then his forthright views on the war and its futility made him a popular figure and the focus of much attention even after his death as the last Tommy, aged 111, in 2009. He once said, War isn’t worth one life.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Somersdale.

The Aftermath and Legacy of the Easter 1916 Rising   Leave a comment

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The 1916 Rising took place over a bloody Easter week in Dublin, when the city centre became a battlefield. During that week, it had little support, but as John Dillon argued, the executions which followed in May infuriated the Irish population. Speaking in the House of Commons, the veteran Nationalist MP and last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, pointed out that…

What is happening is that thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole of life of the Sinn Fein movement and to the rebellion are now becoming infuriated against the Government on account of these executions and, as I am informed by letters received this morning, that feeling is spreading throughout the country in a most dangerous degree…

 We who speak for the vast majority of the Irish people, we who have risked a great deal to win the people to your side in this great crisis of your Empire’s history, we who have endeavoured, and successfully endeavoured to secure that the Irish in America shall not go into alliance with the Germans in that country – we, I think, were entitled to be consulted before this bloody course of executions was entered upon in Ireland. 

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These arguments led to Asquith accepting that some political solution was necessary. The Prime Minister himself, in the aftermath of the Rising, and under pressure from America over the executions in Kilmainham Jail, stopped General Maxwell, the military commander in Dublin, from shooting his prisoners, and announced in the House of Commons on 11 May:

The government has come to the conclusion that the system under which Ireland has been governed has completely broken down. The only satisfactory alternative, in their judgement, is the creation, at the earliest possible moment, of an Irish Government responsible to the Irish people.

He went to Ireland, returned, and told parliament that the government had asked Lloyd George to negotiate for agreement as to the way in which the Government of Ireland is for the future to be carried out, so that the Home Rule Bill, shelved when the war broke out, could be put into immediate effect, without waiting for the end of the war. Yet the position of the Protestants of Ulster – 27% of the total population – and their determination to resist any settlement in which they would be left as a small minority meant that any solution was likely to be accompanied by violence. On the eve of the Great War it was apparent that Ulster’s Protestant population would resist Home Rule if need be by force of arms and the Curragh Mutiny indicated that the army might not repress rebellion in the North. The question of partition from the Ulster Unionist point of view was reported in a letter from Hugh De F. Montgomery, of the Ulster Unionist Council, to his son, dated 22 June 1916. Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a member of Asquith’s Cabinet as Solicitor-General for Ireland, spoke to a private meeting of the Council for an hour and a half to explain the situation over Home Rule. The main point was…

The Cabinet having unanimously decided that under pressure of difficulties with America, the Colonies and Parliament (but chiefly with America), they must offer Redmond (the then leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) Home Rule at once; and (not being prepared to coerce Ulster) having authorised Lloyd George to arrange a settlement, Carson, after what had happened at the Buckingham Palace Conference in 1914, could not well refuse to submit to his followers the exclusion of six counties as a basis of negotiation. Carson had satisfied himself, apparently, that he had lost all the ground gained in their anti-Home Rule campaign before the war, and that the majority of the Unionist members and voters took the same view as the majority of Unionist papers as to the necessity of a settlement… If we did not agree to a settlement we should have the Home Rule Act coming into operation without the exclusion of any part of Ulster, or subject only to some worthless Amending Act which Asquith might bring in in fulfilment of his pledge, and we should either have to submit to this or fight…

I was in Dublin for two or three days last week, and the Southerners I met are all convinced that there will be another rebellion whether the Lloyd George terms are accepted or not. The fact that these terms were accepted has enormously strengthened the Sinn Feiners in the country. The acceptance of these suggestions by the Ulster Unionists has not had much effect on this part of the question. The Unionists’ acceptance under protest has increased Redmond’s difficulties, and, as we are given to believe, placed us in the position in the eyes of British public opinion of being reasonable people. If Redmond actually forms a government and tries to rule this country, the rebellion will be directed against him; if he does not, it will be directed against the existing government; in any case, the country will have to be more or less conquered outside the six counties, and that may possibly be the best way out of all our troubles, which have all their root in a British Prime Minister having brought in a Home Rule Bill.

To try to find a solution of a moderate nature, a Convention was called for 1917. Its meetings were boycotted by both organised labour and Sinn Fein, and any attempt at a solution was blocked by in the conference chamber by the total refusal of the Ulster Unionists to consider the possibility of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. This meant that partition was now the only possible solution, leading to all the problems which were still apparent in the the 1990s, before the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.

The legacy of the Easter Rebellion lived on. According to Liam de Paor and Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1966 was a watershed in the relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland: the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising gave an impetus for the Nationalist population to resurrect their ideal of a united Ireland. The celebrations which accompanied the anniversary led to a backlash from the Ulster Protestants who remembered 1916 for the way in which the Ulster Divisions were cut to pieces on the Somme from 1 July to 18 November that year. From an Irish Nationalist perspective, Liam de Paor wrote in 1971, of the contemporary significance of the battle compared with that of the Rising:

Pearse and his IRB comrades, who broke with Redmond, did not feel that they owed any loyalty to England or that they should fight her wars. On the contrary they hoped that the great European war might provide an opportunity to strike against the colonial connection, and they planned accordingly. Connolly, with his tiny Citizen Army, was even more opposed to Irishmen fighting, not only England’s, but in any capitalist war, and he was bitterly disappointed to see Europe’s socialist parties forgetting their principles when the drums beat and the banners waved, and hastening to wear the uniforms of Europe’s various oppressors on both sides. He too was a nationalist of a kind, although he had made it clear that he was not interested in a mere change of flags but in attacking capitalism through colonialism… 

On the 1 July the battle of the Somme opened, and the 36th (Ulster) Division was ordered out of their section of the British lines at Thiepval Wood on the River Ancre to attack the German lines. They attacked with tremendous courage… and in two days of battle… ended more or less where they had begun, in terms of ground gained. But their dead were heaped in thousands on the German wire and littered the ground that had been bitterly gained and bitterly lost: half of Ulster was in mourning. 

These two bloody events drove Irishmen further apart than ever, for although the Catholic and nationalist Irish also, 200,000 of them, fought, and many died, at the Somme, at Gallipoli, at Passchendaele, and other places with names of terror in that appalling war,  their sacrifice seemed, by the turn Irish history now took, irrelevant – barely a footnote in the developing myth by which the political tradition is animated…

… In Ulster, on the other hand, the Somme is more central in the Protestant political tradition, for, futile as the battle was, the Orangemen who fought in it displayed in the most convincing way that, however eccentric their ‘loyalty’ might seem at times, it was to them quite real, and they showed that in this they were, as Pearse had perceived, not ridiculous at all…

World War One British Soldiers.

Above: Soldiers at the Western Front, waiting to ‘go over the top’.

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Above: Soldiers at the front in Gallipoli, 1915.

The well-known folk song, The Foggy Dew, which commemorates the 1916 Uprising, does at least contain a verse recognising the suffering of Irish soldiers in the Great War, even if it places it firmly in the nationalist narrative:

It was England bade our wild geese go

That small nations might be free;

Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s wave

Or the fringe of the Great North Sea;

But had they died by Pearse’s side

Or fallen by Cathal Brugha

Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep

With a shroud of the foggy dew.

Source: Richard Brown and Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

St Patrick’s Breastplate; Celtic Christianity   4 comments

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Pa...

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Patrick is reputed to have shepherded as a slave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.  He lived in ‘the dark ages’ of the fourth century, so there are conflicting accounts of his life and a great number of legends about him. It is claimed that he wrote two documents, The Confession and The Letter to Coroticus. The first gives an account of his life, and the other tells us something of his style, personality and methods in urging Christian subjects to stand up against pagan leaders. In today’s increasingly secular society, the latter takes on fresh meaning.

He was born about 389 A.D., the son of a small landowner from Banwen in post-Roman Glamorgan (Morgannwg in Welsh), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen he was captured by ‘pirates’, who took him to Ireland as a slave. He was a shepherd on the estate of a chieftain in County Antrim, in the north of Ireland. During the six years of his captivity he resolved to give his life to the service of the gospel. He escaped to Wicklow, to the south of Dublin, and boarded a ship engaged in the trade of wolf-dogs. He was put off on the coast of Gaul and became a monk in the monastery at Lerins. In those days, the western sea routes around Britain and France were the chief means of transport around the various Celtic territiories, since the overland routes were slow, difficult and treacherous, even where the Romans had left roads.

After returning to his home in Britain, he conceived the idea of a Christian mission to Ireland, describing how, in a dream he saw a man named ‘Victorious’ holding letters from Ireland, one of which he gave to Patrick to read. The words in the letter began with ‘The Voice of the Irish’ which called upon him ‘to come again and walk among us as before’. He first returned to Gaul, where he was ordained by Bishop Amator, and for fourteen years he prepared for his vocation as a missionary.

 

wicklow mountains
wicklow mountains (Photo credit: lalui)

He returned to Ireland in 432 and probably landed again in Wicklow and began his mission in the kingdom of Ulidea in East Ulster. He needed the protection of the tribal kings and clan chieftains and succeeded in converting one of them, Dichu, who gave him a site on which to establish a place of worship, a wooden barn, or ‘saball’ in Irish, which became known as ‘Saul’. The most powerful chief, the High King of Tara, had ruled that every fire in Ireland must be put out at Easter and relighted from a fire in his castle, those disobeying being put to death. When Patrick was brought before the King for deliberately lighting his own fire on a hill opposite the castle, he said that he had done so as a sign that Christ, who had risen from the dead, was the Light of the World. He was set free, which reveals not just the strength of his faith, but also the growing strength of the faithful Christians. He then travelled throughout the country, founding communities, including the church and monastery at Armagh. He died in A.D. 461, supposedly on March 17th,  and was probably buried at Saul.

 

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Probably the most famous legend about him is his use of the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of the three-in-one. The shamrock thus became one of the national emblems of the Irish, the other being the harp (see the picture above). Perhaps the most significant legend, however, is that connecting Patrick with Joseph of Arimathea, which tells of Joseph visiting western Britain following the death of Jesus, bringing with him the Sangreal, or dish used at the Last Supper. This gave rise to the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail. Joseph was said to have built a little chapel at Glastonbury, which was replaced by the Abbey, the ruins of which are a place of pilgrimage to this day. Patrick is said to have founded the monastic community there, at a time when the Tor would still have been part of the island of Afalon, easily reachable by ship from the western coasts of Britain and the eastern coasts of Ireland.

There is also a story from Glyn Rhosyn in Pembrokeshire that Patrick settled there, but was told by an angel, in a dream, to move on, since the place was being reserved for St David, who became the patron saint of ‘Y Cymru ‘, the Welsh. Another legend places him in the Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde, at Dumbarton.

 

St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag
St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flag of St Patrick, a diagonal red cross on a white background, became part of the Union Flag when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, joining the cross of St Andrew, for Scotland, and St George, for England. It remains on the flag to this day, although only Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated North and South of the border, and is a public holiday in both the Republic and ‘the Province’, which is appropriate, since there was no border in Patrick’s day and much of his ministry was conducted in the north of the island. The flag of St David is not (yet) part of the UK flag, nor, of course, is the Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch), the national emblem of ‘the Principality’. Patrick also has a hymn named after him:

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind unto myself today

The Power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, His might to stay,

His ear to hearken to my need,

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, His shield to ward,

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.

 

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo
Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hymn is traditionally attributed to Patrick himself, and it certainly shows very clearly the blending of pagan mythology with Christian teaching in the early Celtic Church. It combines the functions of incantation, war-song and redal statement. The whole poem is given a tremendous force and unity by the notion of binding, so characteristic in Celtic art with its intricate knots and never-ending interlacing patterns, such as in the Book of Kells (see the picture above). The original Gaelic poem is known as ‘St Patrick’s Lorica’ . A ‘lorica’ was a spiritual coat or breastplate which not only charmed away disease or danger, but also secured a place in heaven for those who wore it day and night. The word became applied to spiritual poems which characteristically had three distinct parts: the invocation of the Trinity and the angels; the enumeration of various parts of the body to be protected; and a list of dangers from which immunity was being sought. The second of these elements is there in verse 8, where Christ’s presence in every part of the body is carefully invoked.

Legend has it that Patrick composed his lorica shortly after landing in Ireland on his mission, in 432, and to have used it in his defence before the pagan high king at Tara. Whether or not Patrick himself wrote the lorica, it is a supreme expression of the holiness and wholeness that marks Celtic Christianity, and which is summed up in another statement attributed to him:

Our God is the God of Heaven and Earth, of sea and river, sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountain and lowly valley’

These words, and the words of the hymn itself, take on a new relevance for us, in our return to the ecological consciousness which Patrick himself epitomised in his ministry and teaching. The translation of Patrick’s lorica into the hymn was done by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), the author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City and many other hymns, many especially written for children. It was written for St Patrick’s Day, 1889, set to the traditional Irish medley, St Patrick, by Stanford (1852-1924), with the eighth verse ‘Christ be with me’ sung to one of three other Irish melodies. It is also considered an appropriate hymn to be sung on Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, associated in the early church with baptism, so it helps to direct our thoughts on this St Patrick’s Day towards the coming of Holy Week.

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