There were great hopes during WWI that Northern and Southern Irish fighting side by side on the Somme would forge a reconciliation between the two parts of the country. But it was not to be. The problem was too intractable. Soldiers returned home to man their respective northern and southern trenches and we are still dealing with the problem today.
That brief moment of hope is captured in the flags of the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) divisions flying side by side in the Dublin City Archive where an exhibition, Dublin Stories: Remembering the Somme, was launched yesterday (21/10/2016). The emphasis here is not on the grand campaign, rather it tells the personal stories of some of the participants and it is all the more striking for this.
It replaces the previous exhibition which recalled 1916 and it is this nationalist thread of our history which has taken precedence ever since, almost totally eclipsing our participation in WWI and the obscenity which was the Somme.
This eclipse is not fully reproduced in the new exhibition which retains an image of the GPO and a model of Nelson's Pillar originally constructed for the 1916 exhibition.
The ceremonials were kicked off by Brendan Teeling, Assistant City Librarian, who welcomed a varied and overflowing audience to the Archive's conference and exhibition centre.
First up was City Librarian, Margaret Hayes who spoke on the significance of this exhibition in the context of the 1916 commemorations. She told us that this building now houses the archives of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association (RDFA) from which the material for the exhibition had been drawn.
Brian Moroney from the RDFA, as well as giving us some of his own background, made two points which particularly resonated with me: almost every family in the country has some connection, however tenuous, with WWI; and, we should not confine our memories of events like the Somme just to the Irish regiments which took part as there were countless numbers of Irishmen serving in other regiments.
I was glad he made the latter point as my uncle John, who died on the Somme, was actually serving in the Civil Service Rifles because he had been working in the British Civil Service in London. He had joined this volunteer territorial regiment and ended up on the Western Front from the early days of the war.
Brendan Carr, who was introduced as Dublin's First Citizen, him being the current Lord Mayor, commended Dublin City Library and Archive for what he called "this thought-provoking exhibition which personalises the loss and hardship endured by Irishmen and their families".
A timely reminder that the suffering was not confined to the war front alone and that those left behind at home also had a hard time of it, particularly where loved ones either died or returned from the conflict injured. No doubt anyone who took part in that war in the trenches returned home a different person from when they set out on the great adventure.
Declan Kettle, a grand nephew of Tom Kettle who died on the Somme, read the poet's poem to his daughter. No matter how many times I hear its final lines, which must surely have attained the status of cliché in recent years, I find them a powerful vindication of the enduring humanity and idealism of those mired in this awful conflict.
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.
The audience's attention was then diverted to the door where the long awaited arrivals finally turned up. The Newtownabbey Youth Theatre Group, having overcome the obstacle that is Dublin traffic, were now here to perform an extract from their film, The Rose and the Fusilier, which is being screened in Dublin today.
The film shows the tragic thread of warfare for one Dublin family, the Naylors, whose story unfolded in both France and Ireland during Easter 1916.
The film is produced by NACN Theatre Company, a cross-community youth theatre group from Newtownabbey, Co Antrim and is supported by Dublin City Council’s Commemoration Programme. The Lord Mayor is hosting the group in Dublin over the weekend.
So much for the preliminaries. Now it's time to have a look at this much praised exhibition. But first a word of congratulations to the two ladies from the Archive who are responsible for staging it, Ellen and Noelle.
Anyway, there I am in the middle of the crowd who are delicately striking a balance between drinking their coffee, nibbling their fingerfood and absorbing the personal stories of Somme soldiers on the display panels, when I spot a neighbour on the other side of the room. This is a lady I frequently chat with in the street or in the local Supervalu store in Raheny. "What" I ask her "are you doing here?".
Well, it turns out that she is one of two "celebrities" at the exhibition, the other being Declan Kettle. Both are listed in the advance press notice as being available for interview, so I decided to interview her.
She is the daughter of Richard Burke, who is one of those whose story has been chosen for the exhibition. What she told me about him is best encapsulated in the text prepared for the exhibition.
Richard Edward Burke from Dingle, County Kerry, had an excellent education and a good job in the National Bank, College Green when he applied to join the Army in 1914. Richard was in Dublin during the Easter Rising, in 1916, attached to the 3rd Royal Irish Regiment.
Later that year Richard was sent to the Western Front and at the age of 24 was awarded a bravery certificate for his actions at Ginchy. It was reported in the press at the time that ‘Capt. Burke distinguished himself on the 9th Sept. at Ginchy, being the only officer left out of his company’(14 Nov 1916). He later won a Military Cross in 1917 for continuing to lead his men despite being wounded in battle at Wijtschate.
After the war, Richard became a co-ordinator of the Soldiers and Sailors Land Trust which was set-up to provide housing for ex-servicemen. During the 1920s and 1930s the Trust provided over 4,000 houses throughout Ireland.
Muriel remembers visiting the Islandbridge memorial with her family in 1956 when the place was still a wreck. And sure enough there is a photo in the exhibitiion in which she points herself out.
That's her on the extreme left with her father, Richard, in the middle and her mother on the extreme right.
One of her father's Soldiers' and Sailors' Land Trust maps shows the "suburb of Killester" where the Trust constructed many houses for veterans. The diagonal parallels across the map are the Great Northern train line, just blow which is the Howth Road just north of Killester village. The bottom left quadrant shows the location of the newly constructed veterans' houses.
Richard was active in Dublin during the Rising and is said to be one of those seated in this iconic photo of officers with the captured GPO flag, taken in front of the Parnell monument.
And this is Richard as he appears in the exhibition.
All of the above are nicely brought together in a single panel telling Richard's story.
There is also a glass case at the door which gives some idea of the stress and tragedy of that time, containing a letter Richard wrote, in his official capacity at the front, informing a parent of the death of their son. The lad was killed in action on 9 September 1916, on the same day as, and close to where, Tom Kettle had died.
I also spoke to Declan Kettle, who recalled his grand uncle's horror at the wartime atrocities he saw while in Belgium purchasing guns for the Volunteers. This motivated him to join up. He spoke passionately at recruitment meetings throughout the country. Before returning to the front at his own request and to his death on 9 September 1916.
There is much more in this exhibition that I will have to come back and check out,
including other people's stories, archive recordings and artifacts.
The exhibition also includes guided tours by expert members from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association and if you're in town between now and the end of the year you'd be well advised to book yourself in on one of these.
The Association has taken on itself a much wider role in relation to WWI than simply documenting the Dublin Fusiliers Regiment. It has been actively involved in promoting remembrance of all aspects of WWI.