My father would be 120 this year. He was born in 1898 and was 56 when I was born. He served in WWI. So he’s in my mind around ‘Armistice Day’.
I suppose there are not many who can claim to have this kind of lineage today: a father who was born in the 19th century and served in WWI. It throws up some interesting perspectives.
My father was born at the tail end of the 19th century on the estate of Lord Longford in Co. Westmeath where his maternal grandfather was the blacksmith. He did most of his growing up in Courtown, Co. Wexford, on the
estate of the Earl of Courtown, where, as a Protestant (Dissenter in truth), he was for a while educated by the Christian Brothers. His father, grandfather
and great grandfather were all Land Stewards serving many large estates in Scotland and Ireland during the 19th century. They were, I suppose, faithful retainers of the British empire.
Being a Protestant pupil, the Christian Brothers treated my father with kid-gloves and did not mete out the same physical abuse they did to many young Catholics. As a result my father held the Catholic priesthood in high regard all his life for their learning. I’m glad he did not live long enough to see the truth emerge about the institution they served and how it attracted into its ranks many who were not motivated by a desire to guide the young academically.
Perhaps it was his early experience of the Christian Brothers and the influence of his family, who were not in themselves in any way religious, who allowed their eldest son to be educated by the Christian brothers, that caused my father to be completely blind to the issue of a person’s religion for the rest of his life. I like to think that these were inherited values in a family that knew what it was like to be dirt poor. (Due to my father’s age when I was born I never knew my paternal grandparents)
Land Stewards occupied an elevated social position in Victorian Ireland. They were the managers of the estate employees and the estate lands. My father was always keen to point out that they were not the rent collectors and did not get involved in the nasty business of evictions; that was for the bean counters, the Land Agents. Nor were Land Stewards servants, they were professionals like doctors and solicitors.
The Methvens did not always occupy this elevated social position. My great great grandfather (1814-1887) began life as a plough-hand in Fife, Scotland. He somehow made the transition from plough-hand to Land Steward and dragged the
family out of Victorian working class drudgery into the professional middle classes. It was no mean feat in the mid-nineteenth century to make such a move. There was little social mobility. You were taught to know your place and stick to it.
His father – my great-great-great grandfather (1783-1858) – had been a Fife coal miner, probably indentured i.e. bound for life along with his entire family to the colliery owner (farm labourers could be indentured as well) – a form of slavery that was done away with when slavery was made illegal in 1833.
So not only did great-great grandfather lift the family out of the hellish coal mines and up into the sunlight to work in the fields, he eventually took them out of the Dickensian nightmare of hard manual labour in the mid-nineteenth century. How he did it I’ll probably never know, but the family owe him a huge debt.
The family came to Ireland in the 1850s when my great grandfather (1836-1923) got work in his twenties as a gardener in a Wicklow estate and married the daughter of Lord Longford’s Land Steward in Castlepollard, Westmeath. The Irish landed
estates were crying out for Scottish workers. The colonial economy in Ireland at this time was booming since many of the poor had been cleared off in the 1840s. The Scots were seen by the Anglo-Irish as reliable and hardworking, whereas they saw the Catholic Irish as unreliable, spending too much time talking about their rights to make good employees. Contemporary newspaper adverts could be seen asking for ‘Scottish’ or ‘Protestant’ staff. There was no such thing as discrimination laws back then.
My newly wed great grandparents moved to work for Lord Conyngham in Co. Donegal where the Conyngham family held 100,000 acres. They had six children. My grandfather was the eldest.
In December 1869 disaster struck the Methven family. They lost three of their six children to scarlet fever. My grandfather survived and the distraught family left Ireland, returning to Scotland – at least the three remaining
children and their mother did. My great grandfather still served Lord Francis Conyngham in Ireland, now as his Land Steward and Valet – until Lord Francis’ death in 1880. My great grandfather possibly rarely saw his family in Scotland.
Lord Francis Conyngham seems to have been a reasonable character by the values of the time. He became an Irish nationalist MP for Clare and campaigned for tenants’ rights. As his valet my great grandfather would have had to travel widely away from Fife to accompany his lordship on his duties as MP to Clare and to Westminster. He probably knew Parnell. The Conyngham family still hold Slane Castle in County Louth.
I have a silver pocket watch given to my great grandfather by Lord Francis in 1873.
Some years after the death of Lord Francis, around the mid 1880s, my great grandparents returned to Ireland accompanied my twenty year old grandfather who had been working as a shepherd for the Conynghams in Scotland. They bought a small farm near Ballinasloe, Co. Galway; probably facilitated by Gladstone’s land reforms and by my great grandfather’s pension from Lord Conyngham. He died in 1923 and is buried in Enniskillen.
In his lifetime he had seen huge change in Ireland from the immediate aftermath of the 1840s genocide to world war, Irish independence and the demise of the big estates he knew so well.
All this sets the scene for my father’s experience in World War One and its aftermath which is what I really want to talk about this armistice weekend. We are all a product of the times we live in and the legacy of our ancestors, whether we like it or not.
By the time war broke out my father was an apprentice mechanic in Dublin. None of the family went into Land Stewarding. I think by then they knew the game was up for the big estates in Ireland.
Towards the end of his life (he died in 1989 aged 91), unknown to me, my father started to write his life story. I only read this after his death. He writes of joining up in the Summer of 1915 aged seventeen and a half – he lied about his age. He significantly says nothing about his motives.
Like most of his generation he talked very little about the war. My guess is that he volunteered for confused reasons typical of most young men of the time: a mixture of ‘doing his bit’ for either Ireland or the empire, a young man’s need for adventure and a desire to strut about in uniform to impress young women. Unlike many other Irish volunteers of the time his wasn’t a desperate need for paid work and a pair of boots.
What’s certain is that tremendous pressure pre-1916 was put on young Irish
men to join up – all sorts of reasons were used – defending small nations like
Belgium, for the empire, for Ireland’s home rule, for king and country, for the uniform and the money. The authorities tried the lot in Ireland.
Let’s remember at this time, before the Somme and before the 1916 Rising, many Irish people – Catholic as well as Protestant – had come to see themselves as in some way ‘British’.
British royalty were well received in Ireland. There had been no rebellion against British rule for fifty years – since the Fenians in the 1860s. The Land wars of the 1870s and 80s were more to do with reforming land laws than kicking the British out. The genocide of the 1840s was receding from living memory and had been redefined as a ‘famine’, allowing it to be seen as an ‘act of God’. Even the future king of England, Edward, camped in a tent in the Curragh in the 1870s as a serving officer in the British army.
The Irish nationalism of Butt, Parnell and Redmond was primarily focused on achieving home rule under the British crown, not independence.
The Gaelic Revival – led in many aspects by Irish Protestants – had done much to reintroduce a sense of national culture to a broken Irish society, but it had not yet translated into a popular demand for independence.
It was this lingering attachment to a vague sort of ‘Britishness’ of many Irish people of the time that drove the blood sacrifice of 1916, I believe: a desperate move by nationalists and republicans to jolt the Irish out of their faux Britishness. It worked – at some cost. But in March 1915 when my father volunteered, I have little doubt, like his Scottish cousins, that he saw himself as British. His Irishness came later.
Although his grandfather was Scottish born and his father (1862-1934), while born in Ireland, spent most of his youth in Scotland, I never heard my father identify himself as Scottish. Ireland and all things Irish was the great love of his life. He had no attachment to Scotland unlike many northern Protestants; certainly not by the time I knew him.
Being born under British rule to a middle class Protestant family serving the Anglo-Irish gentry, he had an ambivalence to Britain. He was openly in favour of a united Ireland and declared himself an Irish nationalist. Something that got him into hot water in unionist dominated Northern Ireland. He had no time for northern unionism or for the Orange Order. He felt partition had been a huge mistake (he had worked on The Boundary Commission in the 1920s). He recognised that the British had done ‘some awful things in Ireland‘. Yet he was never anti-British. He would salute the flag and stand for the British national anthem and in the next moment wax lyrical about Ireland.
His ‘Britishness’ was of a different kind from today’s unionists. He was a product of a different time. His ambivalence should not be judged by today’s values.
Overall 200,000 Irish people volunteered to serve in the British forces in WWI; 30-40,000 died. Interestingly the Irish Volunteers and the Ulster Volunteers each supplied around the same number of men – 25,000 – to the British military. Both Catholic and Protestant Irish suffered alike in the Irish and Ulster Divisions. Something that my father never tired of pointing out, even though by the 1970s the Irish Catholic contribution had been largely airbrushed out by both sides.
When he volunteered in the summer of 1915 in Kilkenny, as a time-served
mechanic my father was put into the recently formed Royal Flying Corps as an aircraft mechanic working on the cutting edge technology of the biplanes, escaping the horror of the trenches.
As an aside I heard a story that in the last few months of the war 10,000 Irishmen volunteered to serve in the Royal Flying Corps. The authorities were mystified at this sudden upsurge in recruitment. It became apparent later that these Irishmen calculated that the war was ending soon and wanted to get some free mechanical training to prepare them for peacetime employment. At least they were clear on their motives.
Two years after my father joined up in the spring of 1917 the horror of war caught up with him. In a flying accident in northern France, aged nineteen,
he lost an eye and most of his left hand. He was kept on doing menial tasks, such as escort duty and a year later was invalided out, nine months before the war ended.
Back on civvy street, my father got into Trinity College Dublin and graduated in 1920 with a BA in Mechanical and Electrical engineering. He was again at the cutting edge of technology as electricity was still in its infancy.
At this time – early 1920s – my grandfather finished his working career as a Land Steward with Lord Rossmore in Co. Monaghan and the family moved across the newly formed border to a small farm near Enniskillen.
My father never let his disability get in his way. He became a District Engineer with private electric generating companies and then with the Electricity Board of Northern Ireland – the precursor of Northern Ireland Electricity – when those utilities were nationalised after WWII. He was a pioneer, bringing electricity into people’s homes for the first time in the 1930s and 40s in rural County Derry, revolutionising their lives – in a good way.
The other main call on my father’s time in those post-war years was working with the British Legion caring for old soldiers who the state had abandoned. In those days it was cross-community work as a good number of veterans from WWI were Catholic. It was his vocation for this reason.
Days like today – Remembrance Sunday – were busy in our house. We had spent our evenings making poppies to be sold locally. They arrived in their
constituent parts and we had to put them together. Now the British Legion uses prisoners to make their poppies.
On the day we went to the local Legion Hall where the men would assemble before marching to the war memorial and then onto the church. It was a grand sight for a young boy in those days or so it seemed.
In the late fifties and early sixties I remember watching in awe as a fearsome sergeant major barked out orders to the ranks of several hundred world war one and world two veterans assembled on the street in two separate cohorts. Both Protestant and Catholic were represented. I was bemused nevertheless at the sight of my father subject to military discipline. It was a world I knew nothing of.
The sound and sight of all the clinking medals as they came to attention and moved off has never left me. It was an almost mystical sound far removed from the harsh sounds of war.
With pride I raced ahead to see my father marching down the street with all the other men. I waved at him, but there was no question of him breaking military discipline to wave back. I got a wink instead.
Later in the church we waited in a hush for the massed ranks of veterans to make their entrance from the war memorial. The first sign was again that light clink of medals which got louder and louder as they filled the pews. Then over the heads of the congregation I would watch the graceful progress of the colour standards moving up the aisle to the clergyman waiting in the nave. It seemed the church and war were closely connected.
To a small child there was something curiously dreamlike about all the adults standing in silence, heads bowed during the Two Minute Silence. The dream would end abruptly with the Last Post and then a disembodied voice saying:
They shall grow not oldAs we that are left grow oldAge shall not weary themNor the years condemnAt the going down of the sunAnd in the morningWe will remember them
We will remember them
Those lines still trigger an emotional reaction in me today. That may seem mawkish to many not brought up with this culture and the legacy of the slaughter these men endured.
Although as I have said, my father never talked about his war like so many of that time, it was all around us. We now know that parents pass on their traumas to their children, either overtly or covertly. Especially, I think, if the issues are not talked about. If they are talked about they can be described, reasoned out, explained and their impact limited. Instead, in silence they become a mysterious buried pain which the child absorbs from the adult subliminally.
So it is with me and WWI and the Armistice. It is my father’s inarticulate pain I hold because he never talked.
However I don’t engage with the theatre of Remembrance Day any more. The world has changed a great deal since those simple boyhood days when these wars were within living memory. Thankfully my father did not live to see the memory of the fallen trampled by sharp suited politicians sending other people’s children off to yet another and another war and when they return broken in mind and body cutting their benefits.
Engraved on one of my father’s medals is:
‘The Great War for Civilisation’
What civilisation? The heroes didn’t even get a land fit for them as they were promised. They found poverty and yet another war to be fought by their children in turn. That was the ultimate cruelty of a psychopathic governing class.
I kept my father’s memory alive for as many years as I could after his death by attending Armistice Day and donating to the British Legion, but the sight of the creature Blair standing at the Centotaph in 2003 with his poppy, having
lied the people into another foreign war began a rapid disillusionment. I found it more and more difficult to commemorate the ‘fallen’ alongside such people who would eagerly commit another generation to war. I naively believed the line as a boy that WWI was ‘the war to end all wars’. My father believed it. WWII we could accept as one last push to finish the job, but all the wars that followed weakened the belief until it was clear we had been conned.
So what was it all for?
Iraq was the last straw, mainly because it was based on a manifest lie and was so blatantly all about oil – which of course so was WWI, if we had been told the truth, but they never tell us the truth. Now that country lies in ruins with hundreds of thousands of its people killed or maimed by ‘our boys’ under orders from the evil Anglo-American empire’s never-ending global profit-driven ambitions.
So now I can’t stand with those on Armistice Day because it is not commemorating the end of war. There is no intention to end war. Those attending the services know there will be more war and possibly their children or the children of others will be called to fight in it. These children will maim and kill people who have never done them any harm because they are ordered by the state to do so and their parents and friends will support the state in so doing. When these children in turn die they will be mourned at future armistice days.
Are the many innocent victims and the soldiers of the other side mourned? Certainly there was no question of mourning the Germans when I was a boy.
I won’t be a part of what I believe is rank hypocrisy. It’s best for me to stay away.
The poppy is no longer about ending war – if it ever really was. I believe it is about mawkish grief. Sadly it is a symbol sentimentalising war and exploiting people’s genuine grief for political gain.
But more than that, I now understand the true nature of of the British Empire that fought WWI. It wasn’t the benign influence in the world that I had been brought up to believe in – yet more lies. It was and is as evil as anything Germany ever produced. The only difference is that the British have written the history.
There is mounting evidence that the British began WWI. They were planning it ten years out. It was about stopping the rise of German industrial power and about access to Middle East oil. It had nothing to do with the crazy Kaiser Bill or ‘plucky little Belgium‘ being overrun or the assassination of some Austrian prince. That was a false flag event to trigger a carefully planned descent into war.
Ring a bell today? Really their strategies have not changed.
I have set this against the background of my family’s history in Ireland to give some context. We are all a product of our ancestors. I wanted to use their history to examine how so much has changed that I can hold the beliefs I can in 2018. Being able to skip a generation or two to have a father who was born in the 19th century allows me to time travel, to tap into that time giving me perspectives that others may have to learn from history books.
There is no evidence that my family in Ireland were not decent people who saw little alternative to serving the ruling class and the British Empire. I believe they did so honourably. Like all of us they were products of their time and place and their ancestors. Today many good people also serve callous corporations and states.
Over one hundred years on I know my father was lied to by the state as a boy. That lie cost him an eye and a hand. Growing up I was spun the same lie and had to live through another war in Ireland. But at least now we are wise to them and their tricks.