‘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.
Like the Holy Mysteries the Somme and WW1 and WW2 are indelible on my mind. It is difficult to put into any meaningful words. Such atrocities were conducted. My Dad was buried alive by the Germans at Dunkirk, to be dug out by the Maquis and found to their shock that this RAOC driver only wore a Birkenhead Corporation Bus Driver’s uniform as the government did not have enough uniforms to equip everyone. At 6 I was machine gunner by a German pilot of an ME109. He tried many times to get me but I hid in a doorway with shattered tiles all around me. Her then flew slowly and low past me and waved. If I met him today I would recognise him. I trembled until recently and felt faint if u heard the German language, Reading Fr Deitrich Bonhiffer helped me begin to get over my fear if anything German. I met a German my age and we were wary of each other but he was a German Lutheran and suffered at the hands of the Nazis as a child and he hid in the forests living off berries and stealing food to survive. We sat for hours in a cafe in Glasgow fighting back tears and unable to speak. There are no words to describe such terrible mysteries.
It’s the experience of going over the edge of human experience and coming back again. And trying to live as if not carrying the scars of that experience
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