‘There were four cottages over there. The telegraph boy came to every single one of them’
That was said to me in the course of an everyday pastoral call in my parish in Portadown. The Somme remains very real to me because it was very real to that community. Thousands of soldiers from every part of Ireland lost their lives – but the Northern Irish losses were concentrated in the Ulster Division.
Ireland has a way of holding history in such a way that it has power in the present. It’s where history and myth interact. The Somme has been like that – particularly in the way it lay at the heart of the Orange Order parading disputes around Drumcree. For some it was a Service which gave rise to an unwelcome parade. For others it was a very special thing – a commemoration of the loss of the ‘sons of Ulster’. To let it go would have been a betrayal of memory of past sacrifice and loss of present identity.
So much of this is about things which are of symbolic importance. And, while it is possible with great determination to negotiate the substance of things, it is difficult to negotiate symbolic issues.