“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.” In Flanders Fields, by John McRae
Like many of you, I have been avidly following the TV depictions of the Battle of the Somme. They were shown on BBC particularly and also on RTÉ. To my mind, the most marvellous show I saw was last Friday night from RTÉ called My Adopted Soldier.
A history teacher in Donegal decided that he would run this as an all-Ireland project and he engaged all of the history teachers and the students in each of the 32 counties in Ireland. In each county a student adopted a soldier in his/her area who had fought in the First World War for the British Army. They followed up their choice with research in the British Army with the Pensions Office and with various other sources of information.
Each of the 32 students selected followed this up with a visit to the poppy-strewn battlefields of the Somme. Many were able to trace the grave of their individual adopted soldier. The work and research needed to bring that about was truly amazing.
Eileen Magnier, the RTÉ correspondent from Sligo in the north west, was the producer of the programme and I have to hand it to her, it was a brilliant. I was greatly struck by the young people who kept saying, "My adopted soldier was only 17 or 18, the same age as I am now and to think of what they had to endure and undergo when they went off to fight in that battle of the Somme".
It went on for five months. Thousands and thousands of Irish men went. Some are buried in unmarked graves but many of the graves of the chosen soldiers were visited by those same students. Flowers were laid and prayers were said and you could see that the young people were affected deeply on the whole issue.
I taught senior history for a few years in Summerhill College in Athlone. For us all then, the affrays of 1916 meant the Rising and all that came out of it. Somehow we overlooked in all those years to honour the Irishmen who had gone to fight. Yes, for another king; yes, for another country, but many in the belief that by so doing, as Redmond had assured the Irish Volunteers in Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, in that famous speech, they would bring about Home Rule for Ireland.
Some went for the King’s shilling – they had no job. Many went for a bit of adventure, but none of them knew the utter desolation and carnage that they were to endure.
It took the commemoration of the 1916 Rising to waken within us the need to openly commemorate those Irish soldiers who went to all of the battlefields on the western front during the First World War. I know I was greatly moved by looking and absorbing it all.
The young students from Ireland who undertook this research task have provided material which will now serve as a beacon to other young people who come to study this period in our history. Well done to the history teacher from Donegal who saw the vision he could create and interest he could awaken in the young people and went about doing it in a practical way.
The political carry-on in the UK continues and it gets worse by the day. Following the Prime Minister’s resignation, we had the resignation of Boris Johnson. This was followed by the resignation last Monday of the leader of the UKIP Party, Nigel Farage. He said he has his job done and could do no more for the UK. It is las if, following the Brexit Vote, a curse has descended on all the political classes in the UK.
The Labour leader refuses to go. Even though 85 per cent of his party MPs voted him out, he just refuses to leave. Really it is farcical, but quite sad when so much strong decision-making is now so sorely needed in Britain.
This week we will have the first round of the Conservatives electing a new leader who will also become the new Prime Minister. So far it looks like Theresa May will be the winner. Michael Gove seems to have already got the thumbs down and the other candidates are not making much headway. Theresa May seems a fine decisive well-put-together person. I feel if she wins the vote for the head of the Conservative Party, she will certainly bring a sense of stability and normality to 10 Downing Street.
As I am writing this, it struck me vividly how in a few months time there will be a number of women in all of the major powers of the world. We already have Angela Merkel in Germany. We hope to have Hillary Clinton in the US. Likewise, Theresa May in London and who knows what may well follow.
Even David Norris in the Seanad was toppled from his perch as head of the Independent Senators by Marie-Louise O’Donnell. It is definitely women power that seems to be sweeping the western world. We will leave out talk of Marie Le Pen in France until further anon. Angela Merkel will no longer be the only female force to be reckoned with in Europe.
Last Sunday, July 2, the Athlone O’Rourkes had a truly lovely visit to the Dublin O’Rourkes. Normally the Dublin clan come down to visit us in Athlone every two or three months, but on this occasion they invited all of us up to Dublin and we had a lovely midsummer visit with them.
It was a truly wonderful day altogether and of course the children made the day. They are always so delighted to see one another. It was all a great day, firstly of anticipation and then of enjoyment when we got there and later the beautiful lingering memories when we came home.
We will talk together again next week.
In the meantime, go safely.
Slán go fóill,