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The Sons of Ulster are still marching towards the Somme Close

Jonathan Evershed | July 1, 2016

The house has grown cold, the province has grown lonely…The temple of the Lord is ransacked…Dance in this deserted temple of the Lord.”

Commemorative pageantry on Belfast’s Shankill Road

As the whistle blew in Thiepval wood at 7:30 am on 1st July 1916, the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division began their march in to no-man’s land under a hail of German bullets. Today, their ghosts are still marching on banners and on gable walls throughout Northern Ireland. In the intervening century, these ghosts have given witness to the rupture of their homeland in the violent birth of two states, years of hurt and bloodshed on their native streets, and now the stilted hope of a peaceful or ‘shared’ future. As the centenary of that fateful day approaches, these ghosts have been invoked anew in commemorative spectacle, as thousands of Ulster Loyalists retrace the footsteps of their forefathers. The Somme groans under the weight of a symbolism which exceeds the boundedness of the event itself. It is the defining moment of Ulster’s Golden Age: its imagined past and remembered future. It is the blood sacrifice which guarantees the never to be fulfilled promise of its soul’s salvation.

In 1912, some half a million men and women signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, pledging to resist, by “all means which may be found necessary” the “present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland”. The formation of the 100,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913, and the success of their gun-smuggling ‘Operation Lion’ in 1914 demonstrated just what those means may have been, were it not for the great conflagration which enveloped the European continent in July and August of 1914. With the outbreak of war, thousands of Ulster Volunteers swapped their flat caps and puttees for the khaki of Kitchener’s ‘pals’ battalions’. In May of 1915 the 36th (Ulster) Division boarded the boats which would carry them away from Ireland’s shores, many of them for the first and last time. Just over a year later, the mud of the Somme would be stained red with Ulster blood.

In the turmoil of post-war Irish politics, the Somme’s sacrifice for King and Empire served as a powerful Unionist rejoinder to British attempts to ‘sell’ Ulster to a Dublin parliament. In 1920, three of nine counties were ceded as James Craig’s ‘Protestant State’ was birthed in Northern Ireland. The Somme became its founding myth. It was recalled in state ceremonies, Orange parades and, from 1965, the nomenclature and regalia of the newly (re)formed Ulster Volunteer Force. In the one hundred years of Unionist (mis)rule, processions, protests, paramilitarism, curfews, bombs, shootings, strikes, ceasefires, talks and peace agreements, its resonances have both echoed and shaped (Northern) Ireland’s changing political landscape. As its remaining survivors themselves began to pass from the realm of the material to that of the spectral, it looked as though the myth would die with them. Philip Orr, author of the seminal The Road to the Somme, has spoken of how, on his first visit to the Ulster Tower at Thiepval in the mid-1980s, he found it locked, semi-derelict and little visited. By the time Frank McGuinness came to write Observe the Sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme, it appeared as though the ghosts of the Somme may shortly be allowed, at last, to rest.

But the profound political and social changes which have taken place in Ireland, North and South, since the advent of the ‘peace process’ have conspired, instead, to raise them once more. As Queen and Uachtáran stood together on the outskirts of the Belgian village of Messines in November 1998, they were called on to consolidate the hard won peace – signed at Stormont’s Castle Buildings just months before. The ghosts of the 36th (Ulster) Division were joined there by those of the 16th (Irish) Division, Irish Nationalists whose war record had there-to-fore been ‘forgotten’, to tell a new reconciliatory parable about a ‘shared’ sacrifice. Paradoxically, ‘ethical’ remembering and the new official mythology – that there was no ‘Orange and Green’ in the trenches – have transformed Ireland’s First World War into ‘a war that stopped a war’. Where they were once conjured by the architects of the ‘Orange State’, now they are raised by those whose ‘propaganda of peace’ seeks to dismantle it.

Despite the radical changes to the Northern Irish establishment, the ghosts of the Somme are still figures of it. But they are also agent provocateurs, providing succour and guidance to those for whom these changes represent a deep and existential dilemma. For Ulster Loyalists, rapid deindustrialisation, a crisis in educational attainment, the legacy of a brutal and bloody conflict and the so-called and ongoing ‘culture war’ have left the temple ransacked. As they chart their way through these choppy waters, the ghosts of Ulster’s Volunteers are called on to help steer the ship. At ‘flag protests’ and weekly ‘protest parades’, battle cries and costumes are borrowed from the Golden Age, as Ulster Loyalism seeks to reassert its quavering voice in a society which it perceives as refusing to listen.

As Loyalists continue their ghost dance in the ransacked temple of the Lord, more than three decades since its first performance, Observe the Sons of Ulster provides an insight into the Ulster Protestant psyche which is more relevant now than perhaps it ever has been. One hundred years on, the Sons of Ulster are still marching towards the Somme.

Jonathan Evershed is an anthropologist and a PhD candidate at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast. The role of the Battle of the Somme and its commemoration in the contemporary identity politics of Ulster Loyalism is explored in greater depth in his chapter in Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland, edited by Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry and published by Cambridge University Press.