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Somme Voices: The Sons of Ulster

Somme Voices: The Sons of Ulster

by Ed Mulhall

"The whistle blew, it was over the top, we kept running on. At first all went well, then the German machine-gunners opened up and killed and wounded hundreds of our boys. And then a kind of disorder set in. To me it seemed more like a riot than a battle."

George McBride, UVF volunteer and member of the 36th Ulster Division, describing the first day of the Battle of the Somme; a day that saw 1,751 killed or fatally wounded. 1,283 from the North were to die, 468 from the South. The battle was to continue until November leaving one million dead and injured. 3,500 of the former were Irish. For George McBride talking to historian Philip Orr in 1986, in the UVF hospital in Craigavon, the trauma of those days was still vivid: “It’s an awful thing to kill a man. I was a Lewis Gunner and the ones that I did kill, maybe they had wives. Perhaps there is wife somewhere who is still mourning for her husband.”

Albert Bruce, from South Armagh, told Orr that many were altering the reality of the experience: “You hear some old soldiers talk about love of King or country but if you want me to let you know, most men did it because of the monotony of life and the chance to ‘be in the crowd’. Many’s the time when I’m in bed, these things will come back to me, and I can’t get to sleep. Just when I don’t want them. You don’t forget.” Hugh James Adams from Co. Down also had these dreams: “If anybody asked me ‘would you be prepared to come through the war?’ I’d say ‘No I’d rather die.’ I’d rather die a thousand times. It would be absolutely impossible. I still hear the guns sure, and the other night I woke up and I could hear the guns firin’! If you ask me now, I’ll tell you: I wouldn’t put my dog in the British Army.”

Cover of Philip Orr's book The Road to the Somme: Men of the Ulster Division Tell Their Stories

Hugh Stewart from South Antrim returned to the battlefield on the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1966: “But how awful war is. The things people do to other human beings...When we went back...(I felt) we’d accomplished it all. We’d seen the hallowed ground where there were so many of our friends still lying. They were nineteen and we had grown old. Age had taken its toll on us but they remained nineteen for ever.”

These men of the Ulster Division lived to tell their story. Kenneth Pyper is more reluctant: “I remember nothing today. Absolutely nothing. I do not understand your insistence on my remembrance. I am being too mild. I am angry at your demand that I continue to probe. Were you not there in all your dark glory? Have you no conception of the horror? Did it not touch you at all? A passion for horror disgusts me. I have seen horror. There is nothing to tell you. I am not your military historian. Do not turn me into an example. There are sufficient records, consult them.” Despite this reticence Pyper sees his role as a survivor as one of responsibility and duty: "There is a type of man who invites death upon himself. I thought once this is the stuff heroes are made from. I enlisted in the hope of death. I would be such a man. But mine was not the stuff of heroes. Those with me were heroes because they died without complaint for what they believed in. They taught me by the very depth of their belief, to believe. To believe in you. What sense could you make of their sacrifice? I at least continued their work in this province. The freedom of faith they fought and died for would be maintained. There would be, and there will be, no surrender. The Sons of Ulster will rise and lay their enemy low, as they did on the Boyne, as they did on the Somme, against any invader who will trespass on to their homeland.“

Kenneth Pyper however gets to challenge this assertion by visiting the ghosts of those he left behind at the Somme, those who remained 19 for ever, including his younger self. It is this confrontation with history that Frank McGuiness imagined in his play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. The play, first produced in the Peacock Theatre Dublin in February 1985, explores the importance of the Somme in the Ulster Loyalist tradition and how it links with the other battle, begun on the same day in 1690, the Battle of the Boyne, as foundation myths of that tradition. By examining how the memorialising of the Boyne fortified the volunteers of the Somme it shows how myth and action interact with challenging consequences for present day politics.

A memorial garden to the 36th (Ulster) Division on Belfast's Shankill Road.

It is this contemporary relevance that gives the dramatic re-imagining of history a special significance. The voices of the Somme speak not just of their own time but to our present. This was particularly true of Observe the Sons of Ulster. In 1985, it was in the aftermath of then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s ‘out, out, out’ summation of the proposals for the involvement of the Republic in the affairs of Northern Ireland. The Anglo Irish Agreement would be in November of that year. Between then and the next major revival of the play in 1994 there was the IRA bombing of the Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen in November 1987 where 11 died immediately and 63 were injured in an atrocity that deliberately attacked the significance of World War 1 remembrance for the Ulster Protestant tradition. That 1994 revival was in rehearsal as the first IRA ceasefire was declared, soon followed by the Loyalist paramilitaries, and it was performed in that context in Ireland and the UK. The 2016 production in the Abbey Theatre will perhaps bring a new dimension to our response to the play. For the first time it will be seen in a specific 1916 context both in relation to the Irish experience in the First World War and in challenging how the Loyalist tradition sits in our commemoration of that other major event of 1916, the Easter Rising.

In the play, Kenneth Pyper, looks back at himself and his seven comrades in the 36th (Ulster) Division as they set out for the Battle of the Somme. They are seen as they gather in a makeshift barracks, sharing their motivations and bonding as a group. In the Second Act they are seen in a number of symbolic locations in Ulster, while home on leave. Finally, we see them in a trench on the eve of battle, where they discuss the rising in Dublin and re-enact the Boyne battle as a preparation for their own one to come.

Throughout the play some of the myths of the tradition are challenged by the reality of the experience. No more powerfully than in the reluctance of the soldiers to return after their period of leave. One, Moore, keeps seeing blood: “the whole world is bleeding. Nobody can stop it.” Another, McIlwaine, is clearer: “the war is cursed. It is good for nothing. A waste of time. We won’t survive. We’re all going to die for nothing…Belfast will be lost in this war. The whole of Ulster will be lost. We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.” But underpinning their dialogue too is the pull of the tradition. Often spoken in biblical terms: “the Boyne is not a river of water. It is a river of blood. That blood that flows through our veins, brothers. As this blood will be drained into the sewer of an Irish Republic.”

Philip Orr examines how the nature of the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme within Ulster has evolved.

Seeing the Nationalist threat in this explicit and often sectarian context is underlined a number of times throughout the play - not least in the retelling by the soldiers of some new mythology concerning the recent rising in Dublin: “Fenians can’t fight. Not unless they are in a post office or a women’s clothes shop. Disgrace to their sex, the whole bastarding lot of them.” 

The doubts of the soldiers are drowned out by the call to battle, a lambeg drum pounds through the conflict between them. In the final scene in the trench, the play reaches its climax as the soldiers prepare for battle by re-enacting the Battle of the Boyne. In what might be seen as an ominous omen, the younger Pyper playing the horse carrying King William trips over in a challenge to accurate historical reconstruction. The mood becomes sombre as they remember home for one last time, connecting the rivers of Ulster to that of the Somme. Young Pyper, who throughout has been the most cynical and sceptical of the men about the purpose of the endeavor has a realisation : “(the Somme) smells like home. A river at home. It’s bringing us home. We’re not in France. We’re home. We’re on our own territory. We’re fighting for home. This river is ours. This land is ours. We’ve come home.” His closest comrade Craig responds vehemently: “You’re trying too hard, Pyper. It’s too late to tell us what we are fighting for. We know where we are. We know what we have to do. And we know what we are doing it for. We knew before we enlisted. We joined up willingly for that reason. Everyone of us, except you. You’ve learned it at long last. But you can’t teach us what we already know. You won’t save us, you won’t save yourself, imagining things. There is nothing imaginary about this, Kenneth. This is the last battle. We’re going out to die…Whoever comes back alive, if any of us do, will have died as well. He’ll never be the same. Different men after this one way or another.” In their final moments the love and friendship of the men to each other is emphasised and in a last symbolic moment young Pyper is given and accepts an Orange sash to wear like the others into battle.” So we’ll recognise you as one of our own. Your own.” Having prayed each one in turn exchanges his sash with the other and young Pyper leads them in a final prayer: “Let us fight bravely. Let us win gloriously. Lord, look down on us. Spare us. I love –. 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…” With this chant the soldiers gather arms and the chant turns into a frenzied battle cry.

The elder Pyper returns to meet his younger self:

Younger Pyper: Ulster
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: I have seen horror
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: They kept their nerve and they died.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: There would be and there will be, no surrender.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: The house has grown cold, the province has grown lonely.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: You’ll always guard Ulster.
Elder Pyper: Ulster.
Younger Pyper: Save it
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: The temple of the Lord is ransacked.
Elder Pyper: Ulster.
(Pyper reaches toward himself)
Younger Pyper: Dance in this deserted temple of the Lord.
Elder Pyper: Dance

Tweet by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht who saw the play on the eve of the Somme centenary/

This bold, uncomfortable, ending to the play, with the sacrifice myth emotionally embraced by the two reluctant sides of the main character, one to fortify himself for battle, the other to be true to that challenged heritage. The needs of the time determine the response. And so it is with audiences as they experience the dilemmas in their own modern day context. When it is revived this year the play may be viewed for the first time in the context of 1916, as a World War One play and with the added context – the context of commemoration and the challenges raised for both traditions by the events of Easter and the Somme. The relatively settled politics of a post Good Friday agreement Ireland allows this. But now too there maybe an added context, the European, British and Irish politics of a Brexit bring a new focus to borders, traditions, identities and accommodations.

The decade of centenaries allows us to explore these complexities just as the survivors of the Somme lived them. The veterans of the war were often reticent with their memories, choosing silence rather than re-opening the wounds, but always showing respect in remembrance of the fallen. Their life stories often reflect in themselves the contradictions of their times. George McBride was an Ulster Volunteer who married the Irish 1916 rebel and secretary of James Connolly, becoming another symbolic story of reconciliation in the new commemorative context of 2016. In May a headstone was erected on his grave in Clandeboye Cemetery in Bangor, Co. Down. It reads “George McBride, Ulster Volunteer, Prisoner of War, Socialist, Educator and Activist. Husband of Winfred Carney. Born 12 February 1898. Died 21 March 1988. 

Further Reading

Philip Orr, The Road to the Somme, Belfast, 1987.
Frank McGuinness, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, London,1986.
Kevin Myers, Ireland’s Great War, Dublin, 2014.
Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War, Cambridge, 2010.
Eamon Jordon, The Feast of Famine, the plays of Frank McGuinness, Bern,1997.
Cyril Falls, The History of the 36th Ulster Division, London,1922.
Myles Dungan, Irish Voices of the Great War, Dublin, 1995.


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.