2016 has been a year of what feels like almost constant commemoration in Ireland as the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 is marked in lectures, art exhibitions, television programmes and parades. But we are also in the middle of commemorating the Great War, a war that for a very long time in post-independence Ireland, was a subject of embarrassment rather than remembrance in what the historian R. F. Foster calls “a policy of intentional amnesia”. Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme has become the most successful and best known attempt by a contemporary Irish writer to retrieve the cultural memory of that war, and in particular of the terrible losses sustained by Ulstermen loyal to the Crown. Written in the 1980s, when the Northern Irish Troubles were at their height, the play is an attempt by a Southern Irish Catholic to understand how those losses, borne for the most part by Protestant soldiers of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme, shaped the future Northern Ireland. These men, most of whom would have been signatories of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant in 1912, demonstrating their absolute determination to stay British, are described memorably by Philip Orr in The Road to the Somme as “a covenanting army, oath-bound and committed as much to the collective survival of Protestant Ulster as to the survival of the Britain they fought for and were part of”.
A native of Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly county – yet not in Northern Ireland – Frank McGuinness has written about the sectarian faultlines in Ireland: “I think that sectarianism of any kind is stupid and I feel then, to go around describing myself as a Northern or Southern writer is stupid. I'm both, actually. I was born in the North, which is politically classified as the South, so I've got that lovely confusion – I like confusion a lot”. In one 1987 interview, McGuinness confessed that he was twenty-seven when he first heard about the Ulstermen who died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. For a Catholic like McGuinness, the Somme was always excluded from folk memory. “I was brought up”, he commented, “to see the Easter Rising as a triumphant event, and the triumphalism was so strongly Catholic -- but then look at the Battle of the Somme: it was a defeat and a terrible betrayal”. McGuinness made a point of visiting war memorials across Ulster, and after investigations about the battle for his play, he reached a certain understanding that the disaster of the Somme “confirmed for many Northern Protestants their darkest and most deep fears. That is why it is still such a truth, such a reality for them”.
In a city like Liverpool which, by 1916, had seen the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants, both Catholic and Protestant, over the previous 50 years, there were some inevitable sectarian tensions. A small, but significant group of Irish volunteers, wishing to see Ireland gain its freedom by force of arms, travelled from Liverpool to take part in the Easter Rising against British rule in Dublin. But, for the most part, the Liverpool-Irish went east rather than west and signed up in huge numbers to serve King and country in the Great War, many of them part of the Liverpool 8th Irish Battalion. For a majority of Irish volunteers, loyal service in the war was seen as an opportunity to underline Ireland’s right to Home Rule and a return of its parliament to Dublin. T. P. O’Connor, M.P. for the Liverpool Scotland constituency, centered around the heavily Irish Scotland Road district of the city – the only Irish nationalist M.P. to be returned from a constituency outside of Ireland – wrote in his 1916 tract, Irish Heroes in the War that “the principles for which Irishmen had fought all their lives were revealed to them, as in a flash, as the great spiritual and fundamental issues of the War”. He went on to claim that “For the first time in the history of the race, ‘God Save the King’ was sung – because for the first time these Irishmen were ready to regard themselves as free citizens of a free Empire”.
Enthusiasm for the war effort was, of course, tempered somewhat by the terrifying casualties suffered on the Western Front, with the Battle of the Somme particularly demoralizing. The best known response to the war by an Irish writer prior to McGuinness’s play was Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie of 1926, a play rejected by W. B. Yeats’s Abbey Theatre, so outraging O’Casey that he left Ireland, never to return. Frank McGuinness has argued that as a result of this rejection, “a curse came upon the Irish theatre”. Observe the Sons of Ulster is, in part, an attempt to lift that curse. Now a classic of the Irish theatrical canon, Observe won the 1986 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Literary Prize, set up in memory of the murdered British Ambassador to Ireland to recognize outstanding contributions to crosscultural understanding.