We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.

On 1 July 1916, 2,069 men of the 36th Ulster Division were among the among the 19,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That day was also the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, and some of the men of the 36th went over the top wearing orange sashes.

With the centenary of the Somme less than two weeks away, it was apt to have the chance of seeing a revival of Frank McGuinness’s great war play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme at the Playhouse in Liverpool – especially as this was a co-production of Headlong, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and the Everyman.

Directed by Headlong’s Artistic Director, Jeremy Herrin, with fine performances from a superb cast and atmospheric stage design, Frank McGuinness’s play is rich, complex and compelling. First staged in Dublin in 1985, it is a masterpiece of insight, empathy and subtlety written by a Catholic from south of the border. The play probes the heart of Ulster Protestant belief: fierce loyalty to king and empire, religious certainty and defence of their community, and an ideal of manhood bound up in concepts of pride, comradeship, loyalty, patriotism, and loyalty to the symbols of tradition which led tens of thousands of young Ulstermen to volunteer for the British army during the First World War.

Writing five years after the play was first performed as the Troubles in the province continued, Helen Lojek commented:

Observe the Sons of Ulster is no[t] …about just World War I. The tensions that tear these World War I soldiers are the same as those now tearing Northern Ireland.

Because in 1985, as the Northern Ireland conflict ground on, McGuinness’s play was an intervention onto fiercely-contested ground: the Irish memory of the first World War. Whilst in the Republic the fact that ordinary Irish nationalists fought for the British was expunged from the national story, in Northern Ireland the memory of the war was ‘owned’ by Protestants, who celebrated the sacrifice of the loyalist 36th Ulster Division. A stark illustration of these divisions came barely two years after the play’s first performance when the IRA bombed a Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen in 1987, killing 11 people and injuring 63, all of them Protestant.

This was context in which Dublin’s Abbey Theatre staged a play by an Ulster writer from a Catholic background – a play, moreover, that attempts to understand the motivations and mentalities of a group of loyalist soldiers in the 36th who marched to their doom at the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.

Now, in the year of the centenary of that battle, this co-production revival touring the UK and Ireland came to Liverpool – and everything about it was first-class. A superb cast took McGuinness’s penetrating text and brought its characters and arguments vividly to life. The eight men they portrayed are drawn from all corners of the province – from rural Eniskillen to industrial Belfast. Millen and Moore are the country lads from Eniskillen, while McIlwaine and Anderson are a pair of cocky  Orangemen, shipyard workers from Belfast.

Complicating the currents swirling through the play are the figures of Roulston, a former preacher who has lost his faith, and the play’s focus – Pyper, a cynical sculptor from a ‘swanky’ family. Pyper is a complex character whose Protestant faith and belief in Loyalist myth is complicated by his homosexuality which has resulted in his being cast out, the ‘black sheep’ of his wealthy family. Pyper tells Craig, the handsome young volunteer to whom he is drawn sexually, that he joined up because he had nothing better to do, ‘or to be more accurate, nothing at all’.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Pyper's opening monologue
Pyper’s opening monologue

In the play’s prologue the aged Pyper – the only one of the eight to survive that terrible day on the Somme – delivers a monologue haunted by the memory of his comrades: ‘those I belonged to, those I have not forgotten, the irreplaceable ones.’

I want to ask you something. I need your answer before I turn into air. Answer me why we did it. Why we let ourselves be led to extermination. In the end we were not led. We led ourselves. We claimed we would die for each other in battle. To fulfil that claim we marched into the battle that killed us all. That is not loyalty. That is not love. That is hate.  Deepest hate. Hate for one’s self. We wished ourselves to die, and in doing so we let others die to satisfy our blood lust.

After this opening monologue with its Beckett-like starkness, McGuinness develops its themes and deepens our  understanding of the characters of the eight men in three acts, first observing the men as they arrive at a Belfast training barracks, then on leave some months later, and finally on their last morning on the Somme.

Observe the Sons of Ulster
The volunteers gather for training

The first act contains some telling insights into the ideas of masculinity which have shaped these men and their attitudes. Told that he must make up his own bed, Moore scoffs: ‘Woman’s work. You don’t join the army to do woman’s work’ When discussion turns to dying, and Pyper states that he ‘wants it over quickly’, Millen objects to such talk as ‘more fit coming from crying women’. It turns out that Millen is a chef: ‘Give him a skirt and he’ll run you up a four-course dinner’, his mate jokes.

After the interval comes the lengthy act in which we encounter the eight men home on leave after five months in the trenches. The presentation of this scene is complex, with the stage divided into four areas in each of which responses to the war are explored through the ‘pairing’ between two of the men, with the action often cutting rapidly from one pair to another. In one area of the stage the independent-minded Crawford urges the terrified former preacher Roulston to give up depending on religion and to trust in himself. Elsewhere, Millen encourages Moore to go across a rope-bridge and conquer his fear of falling by looking straight ahead.

Meanwhile, Craig  has brought Pyper to Boa Island on Lough Erne, a place famed for mysterious carved stone figures that date back to the early Christian period. He hopes that they may inspire Pyper to begin sculpting again. At the front, Craig has saved Pyper’s life, and the two men are drawn together sexually. Pyper admits that Craig’s love has helped him overcome his cynicism (vividly expressed in the first act) and brought him back to himself:

I turn people into stone. Women and men. Into gods. I turned my ancestors into protestant gods, so I could rebel against them. I turned my face from their thick darkness. But the same gods have brought me back. Alive through you.

Observe the Sons of Ulster McIlwaine and the Lambeg drum
McIlwaine and the Lambeg drum

In the forefront of the stage, the Belfast Orangemen McIlwaine and Anderson conduct their own private Orange march to a field where, but their absence at the front, they would have joined an annual parade. In a scene of astonishing power, McIlwaine beats the Lambeg drum he usually plays in the parades so fiercely his hands bleed:

McIlwaine: It’s no good. . . . It’s no good here on your own. No good
without the speakers. No good without the bands, no good without the
banners. Without the chaps. No good on your own. Why did we come
here to be jeered at? Why did we come here, Anderson?
Anderson: To beat a drum.

The final act reveals the men waking up in the Somme trench and gathering their kit as they wait to go over the top on the first morning of the battle. McIlwaine decides to relieve the tedium of waiting for the attack with an anecdote about events back in Dublin.  He jokes about ‘this boy Pearse’ who ‘took over a post office because he was short of a few stamps’. Pearse cries that he has a widowed mother, but as he is led away the old woman grabs a rifle from a British soldier and shoots her son, shouting, ‘That’ll learn him, the cheeky pup. Going about robbing post offices’.

In another of the play’s most memorable scenes, the men re-enact of the Battle of the Boyne by squatting on each other’s shoulders and playing at King Billy confronting King James. But when things don’t go according to the script and the Orange king stumbles, it is seen as an unsettling omen. Anderson suddenly despairs: ‘Pyper, the bastard, was right . . . We’re going to die for nothing. It’s all
lies.’ Pyper responds with a wild, demoniacal chant:

Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme. I love their lives. I love my own life. I love my home. I love my Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster.

As the chant of ‘Ulster’ commences rifles and bayonets are raised. The chant turns into a battle cry, reaching a frenzy. The elder Pyper appears. His Younger Self sees him. The chant ceases.

Tom Herron in his essay ‘Dead Men Talking‘ offered this interpretation of the moment:

The Younger Pyper reiterates the words spoken earlier by the Elder Pyper, who himself takes up the chant begun years before by his younger self. And it is not just time that collapses at this moment. The cause that animates the men – ‘Ulster’ – empties out into substancelessness, into a performance of pure iteration, relating to nothing other than itself. For what is signified by ‘Ulster’? Surely not what its loyal sons imagine as they prepare to die for it: not an Ulster in ruins, not an Ulster peopled substantially by its enemies, not as Ulster as anachronism, as impossibility.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 2
The Island of Ireland Peace Park

Because of the events of the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and the partition of Ireland under the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 and the Irish Civil War that followed it, little was done in the Republic of Ireland to commemorate the Irish dead from the First World War. On the Western Front the only memorial to Irish war dead was the Ulster Tower at Thiepval, one of the first memorials erected.  Officially unveiled in 1921, it is a copy of Helen’s Tower which stands in the grounds of the Clandeboye Estate, near Bangor, where many of the men of the Ulster Division trained before leaving for France in 1916.

It was not until 1998 that the first memorial dedicated to the soldiers of Ireland of all political and religious beliefs who died or were wounded in the Great War was opened. In 2014 I visited the traditional Irish round tower that rises from the Island of Ireland Peace Park, located by the road from Ploegsteert, not far from the centre of Mesen.

The tower was built as a symbol of reconciliation, and opened by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, on 11 November 1998 – in the same year that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast.  With the support of the people of Mesen, the tower was commissioned by the All-Ireland Journey of Reconciliation Trust, a broad-based cross-border Irish organisation which hopes to bring together people of diverse beliefs, It was constructed using stones from a demolished workhouse in Mullinger, County Westmeath. The design is that of a traditional Irish round tower of the 8th century. It is 110 feet high, and is designed so that the inside of the tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Inside the Tower there are record books with the names of the 49,400 known Irish who gave their lives in the First World War.

At the entrance of the Peace Park a bronze plaque is inscribed with a Peace Pledge:

From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War on which we have built a peace park and Round Tower to commemorate the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations, whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves, we condemn war and the futility of war. We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour.

As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches.

As we jointly thank the armistice of 11 November 1918 – when the guns fell silent along this western front – we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace.

Island of Ireland Peace Park
The Island of Ireland Peace Park

The Somme was ‘a disaster the magnitude of which stands alone even in the crowded history of World War 1’ (Jay Winter). A major onslaught planned with industrial precision with the aim of destroying the German defences and enabling the British to gain a key advantage which would end the war, the offensive was a total failure.

Of 120,000 troops who went into battle on July 1, more than 57,000 were dead or wounded by the end of the day. The Battle of the Somme ground on for another two months or so, eventually petering out in the rains of November.

The Battle of the Somme … produced no strategic gain and over one million casualties. Like Verdun, the Somme was collective slaughter, an outcome of the terrible logic of total war.
– Jay Winter, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century

Irishmen from the north and south of Ireland joined up in the hope of advancing their different causes – unionist or nationalist – by fighting on the British side. A Catholic from Donegal, Frank McGuiness was raised to believe strongly in the Easter Rising as ‘the foundation of my country … a triumphalist event, and the triumphalism was so strongly Catholic.’  He was in his twenties before he discovered how many Ulster lives were lost at the Battle of the Somme. He came to realise that the battle and ‘the psychic blow it delivered to a part of the population of this island … has as effectively shaped our destinies as anything that happened on Easter Monday’. His response was to write The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

Like Frank McGuiness, the poet Michael Longley is also from the North. He was born in Belfast in 1939, the son of English Protestants. Growing up in a city riven by sectarian tensions, he has written extensively about the First World War and of his father’s role in that conflict. One of Longley’s best known poems is ‘Wounds’, written in 1972, in which he links his father’s service in World War I and his death from cancer in 1958 to the sectarian killings in Northern Ireland. The poem seems to echo McGuiness’s drama in its exploration of victim-hood and sacrifice:

Here are two pictures from my father’s head —
I have kept them like secrets until now:
First, the Ulster Division at the Somme
Going over the top with ‘Fuck the Pope!’
‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,
Screaming ‘Give ’em one for the Shankill!’
‘Wilder than Gurkhas’ were my father’s words
Of admiration and bewilderment.
Next comes the London-Scottish padre
Resettling kilts with his swagger-stick,
With a stylish backhand and a prayer.
Over a landscape of dead buttocks
My father followed him for fifty years.
At last, a belated casualty,
He said — lead traces flaring till they hurt —
‘I am dying for King and Country, slowly.’
I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.

Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform —
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.

Along the approach to the Peace Tower in the Island of Ireland Peace Park are nine stone tablets, each inscribed with prose, a poem or part of a letter from an Irish serviceman. One of the tablets displays words by the poet Francis Ledwidge, who was killed in the Ypres Salient on 31 July 1917, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele.

Like the eight men of McGuiness’s play, Ledwidge was a volunteer – though from the other side of the sectarian divide. A Catholic  from Slane, he was the eighth of nine children in a poverty-stricken family. Largely self-educated, he had taken whatever work he could find – as farm hand, road mender, and copper miner before joining up. His politics were nationalist and left-wing: a trade union organiser and nationalist, he was a supporter of the Gaelic League and founder of the local branch of the Irish Volunteers. His decision to enlist with the British forces must have baffled his friends and comrades; his justification was that Britain ‘stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.’

Ledwidge was dismayed, however, by news of the 1916  Easter Rising, and was court-martialled and demoted for overstaying his home leave and being drunk in uniform. After the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed, he stated: ‘If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!’

On 31 July 1917, during preparations for an assault during the Third Battle of Ypres, Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades when a shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. The chaplain, who arrived soon after the incident, recorded ‘Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.’

In Ireland, Irishmen like Ledwidge who had served with the British were consigned to a place in history where ‘honour turns away in shame’ in the words of the final line of his poem ‘Soliloquy’ – a line removed when the poem was first published:

When I was young I had a care
Lest I should cheat me of my share
Of that which makes it sweet to strive
For life, and dying still survive,
A name in sunshine written higher
Than lark or poet dare aspire.

But I grew weary doing well.
Besides, ’twas sweeter in that hell,
Down with the loud banditti people
Who robbed the orchards, climbed the steeple
For jackdaws’ eyes and made the cock
Crow ere ’twas daylight on the clock.
I was so very bad the neighbours
Spoke of me at their daily labours.

And now I’m drinking wine in France,
The helpless child of circumstance.
To-morrow will be loud with war,
How will I be accounted for?

It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than a poet’s art.
And greater than a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name,
Whence honour turns away in shame.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme: trailer

See also

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