In June 1917, soldiers from the Ulster and Irish battalions of the British army fought side by side for the first time, at Messines, to liberate Belgium from German occupation.
Around 4000 men from Londonderry/Derry fought in World War One. Their reasons for putting on a British uniform were as individual as the soldiers themselves. The We Were Brothers project remembers a generation of young men from the North West who put aside the ties of religion and politics and, somehow, found a common humanity in the unimaginable horror that was the Western Front.
Major Willie Redmond...... Stephen Graydon
Captain Stephen Gwynn...... Michael Doherty
Lt Col Edmund Roche-Kelly...... Ronald Holland
Private Robbie McClean...... Mark Oakley
Private John Meeke...... David Doherty
Lance Corporal Michael Conroy...... Scott Graydon
Private Declan O'Hagan...... Damien Coyle
Nurse Anne Craig...... Christina McGarvey
Nurse Emily Colhouln...... Megan McGlinchey
Sisters of the Locre Hospice...... Catherine McFadden & Saoirse Jackson
Stretcher Bearers...... Anthony Bevington & Michael McDermott
Home Front Girl...... Aoife Costello
The Schools' Production (by Steve Wakely, Director)
As a Cub Scout I spent several cold November mornings waiting around in the rain, as preparations were made to march through the town of Shrewsbury to the war memorial. We always seemed to be to the rear of the column and we only occasionally caught a glimpse of the veterans as they moved to their positions or dispersed after the ceremony. I have to admit that I did not fully appreciate the significance of Remembrance Sunday at the time. If I am honest, ‘Poppy Day', as I knew it, was simply part of the yearly cycle of events that gave a loose structure to my life. And yet the eldest of those men, proudly wearing their medals on their chests, were almost certainly veterans of The Great War. Looking back I realise how sad it is that we were never given an opportunity to meet these men, to sit and chat even for a few minutes, to hear of their experiences and now, thirty years later, they have passed away and their personal stories are mostly forgotten.
As time passes the family ties that link us to the names carved on cenotaphs across the country are becoming increasingly stretched. With this in mind, I am really pleased that I have been given an opportunity to work on this project and looking forward to bringing the story of Meeke and Redmond to the stage. Hopefully, We Were Brothers will encourage students to dig a little deeper into their own family histories and give them the confidence to uncover the stories of their relations, local men and women, who were involved in World War I. If we can create drama that provokes discussion in classrooms and in living rooms across the city then we will have done something to honour the memory of those young men and women who suffered in that terrible conflict.
We Were Brothers (by Felicity McCall, Writer)
It's almost 100 years since the first of an estimated 4,000 young men from the North West of Ireland made the decision to put on a British uniform and volunteer for service in World War One. Their reasons for doing so were as many and disparate as their backgrounds. Many were only teenagers, though the word had not been invented yet. Most went to a country they had scarcely heard of, let alone visited.
35,000 Irish soldiers would never come home and that's the most conservative estimate. Taking into account those who died as a result of what happened to them, some historians say a more realistic death toll is 50,000, or more. For those who did come home, who tried to return to a way of life that had been forever destroyed, life would be utterly changed.
But, for the best part of the intervening years, the lives of many of these young men have, at best, been kept private and, at worst, suppressed or censored. It has not been easy for a Nationalist ethos to coexist with a family legacy of British military service. There is also the difficulty of reconciling the need to record and value what is our shared family and community history, with a determination to ensure the mindless slaughter of a generation is in no way justified or exonerated.
As a writer, all I can do is to try to record them as individuals, as young fathers, sons and brothers, as they were when they walked out the door to go to their death on the battlefields of France or Belgium. There was nothing glorious in their sacrifice. By the time the enigmatic Major Willie Redmond had won the right for Ulster and Irish Divisions to fight together as a combined force, storm Messines Ridge and recapture the little Belgian town of Wytschaete in June 1917, the soldiers were battle weary, disillusioned, politically duped, cynical and yearning for a home and a future that they must have known instinctively would have no real place for them.
They were right. The British government never did pass the Home Rule Bill. By the time of the Armistice in November 1918 the mood was turning away from constitutional nationalism and Ireland would be plunged into a war of independence and a bloody civil war ending in partition. Sporadic violence in the north would erupt into more than thirty years of conflict. It seems that the only now, as the first generation of the young people defined as the "children of the peace" grow to adulthood, that the time may be right to remember openly, and with respect.
Messines is important, for it is a microcosm of all that is worth remembering and upholding about this lost generation; not as a triumphant strategic success, but as a remarkable endorsement and vindication of the strength and integrity, the humour and generosity of spirit, of these thousands of ordinary men from ordinary homes. For, faced with the unspeakable brutality and waste of life that is war, they were somehow moved to put aside their differences in the cause of a common humanity.
Somehow, they found that beyond political betrayal and manipulation, beyond ties of religion and tradition, culture and creed, it was enough at that time, in the uncharted No-Man's-Land, to be Irishmen... and brothers.
Learning Through Remembering (by John Harkin, Vice Principal, Oakgrove Integrated College)
Education in its truest sense teaches young people to be confident in themselves, their own beliefs and at ease with those whose beliefs are different. For the learning to last, there must be trust which allows for openness so that there can be discussion and disagreement but respect which transcends that.
For many in the UK, remembering is natural; for some it is patriotic, for others it may seem jingoistic, but for most in Northern Ireland remembering is either demonstrably done, or entirely ignored. Remembering, like so much else, is not neutral in Northern Ireland.
Departed souls of conflicts past cannot be ‘innocently' remembered in a society that makes judgements of those who remember, or those who do not. Amid Northern Ireland's recent conflict, remembering the fallen of an earlier war became difficult, with remembrance becoming associated with only one tradition. This made it easy to identify, stereotype and to target those who chose to remember. The bomb attack at the Cenotaph in Enniskillen in 1987 reinforced the separateness of remembrance; the too-simplistic interpretation was that only Protestants were killed or injured because only Protestants attend such ceremonies, because only Protestants served in WW1.
I was just fourteen, but the voice that reverberated round the world then had an immensely powerful effect on me. It was the voice of Gordon Wilson who had the grace to forgive the bombers who had killed his daughter Marie: ‘I bear them no ill-will, I bear no grudge" those words would echo down the years for me when, in 2008, for the first time, Oakgrove and its students were represented at the cenotaph in my own city. A gable wall reminded me of the one where Enniskillen's victims must have stood. I thought of Gordon Wilson as I looked at the faces of the young people who had not long before made the journey to Messines: students from different traditions, brought together by the International School for Peace Studies, to explore issues of diversity and to learn about and from each other. To know the other and to respect the other, however much their views might disagree.
In schools' workshops entitled, ‘Controversial Dialogue,' young people from different backgrounds are brought together to talk about those things it is difficult to discuss and not only for the young. One of the most difficult topics is war, remembrance and the poppy. Today, such dialogue is often polarised because it has not yet been opened up, where people's first utterances speak of loyalty to a tribe or are based on ignorance. Or of fear. Last November I overheard a conversation where a member of staff was described as ‘brave' for wearing a poppy. He explained he would not do so on ‘the other side' of town, reflecting (I thought) a fear of what might happen, of standing out, of being different. It was no different to my own desire not to stand out by stating too loudly my own views on war while publicly ‘remembering' on Remembrance Sunday. Growing up in Northern Ireland, although no-one teaches us to be sectarian, we have our own sense of what is better not said.
Some months ago I visited a Hand-in Hand Arab-Israeli school in Jerusalem, while the horror of the deaths in Gaza was still coming to light. I was conscious of the way in which a polarised Northern Ireland flies the flags of those it supports in the Middle East and uses an international conflict in contemplating its own. I wondered how it was possible to bring together young people there while such savage conflict was raging. The answer, honest and open dialogue, gave me hope and a challenge to all of us in Northern Ireland to begin in earnest the dialogue we have not yet had about everything which divides. There, the students engaged in discussion about Gaza as soon as that conflict began, and they continue to do so while teachers teach what is difficult in spite of potential risks.
In 1994 and 1995 in refugee camps in former Yugoslavia, I met those from different backgrounds who disputed the international view that their conflict was inevitable, that hatred was always there but concealed. I heard how the history of a previous conflict was reinterpreted and re-taught and the ‘memory' of that conflict was used to fuel the more recent one. Where history is ignored or denied, we create for ourselves dangers for the future.
The We Were Brothers project should allow young people to explore their family history, to know their relatives and not to be ashamed of them. I hope it will help to bring us to a day when we can all express our views on conflict past and present, without contemporary political judgements being made, where people can feel free to remember, or not and to be respected.