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by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
“The name of the place where France and Britain decided to mount their joint assault now resonates through history. This scene of one of the bloodiest battlefields of the First World War is full of landmarks like ’Usna Hill’, ’Tara Hill’, and ’Munster Alley’, landmarks that got their nicknames from the tens of thousands of Irish soldiers who fought at this place.”
- a description of the Somme by Neil Richardson (from ’A Coward if I Return, a Hero if I Fall’; 2010, 69)
Around 200,000 Irishmen volunteered to fight in the First World War, Richardson writes; over a quarter of all eligible men in the country. More than 35,000 of those volunteers never returned. And those that did were frequently derided, ostracised; sometimes shot – the victims of a massive, subsequent swing in the national mood. Over the years that I’ve watched, and felt myself (I won’t deny it), the political mood swings of this same nation; Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, the Progressive Democrats and the Green party, have each risen, sometimes risen again and then fallen after the swell of their wave. What does it mean? Do we think, or do we just feel? Are we volatile?
At the moment we are mired in pessimisism. All of us. The billions of euros lost by our major banks, in their mindless, greed-driven land speculation, have been guaranteed by the state, by us; the same state that regularly spends far more than it gains in taxes. And, technically, we are bankrupt. Last week, a report was released that detailed a decade of warnings to the Government about its spending habits. Those warnings were regularly ignored – spreading cash around was a good way of getting votes, and people loved Fianna Fail for it. And voted them in again and again.
Who pays the bill for it all now? Or rather, who loved them before and who hates them now? They’re the same party. There were plenty of warnings, over the years, to us, about what was going on – but the sweets were more enticing than watching the stable door. And the swell was there. We just rolled with the motion of the water. Only five years ago we were kings of the world – what would those soldiers think of the men who dared to paste a motorway beside the real Hill of Tara? Face it, if they were really like us and if they were living here five years ago, they, like the voters of Meath, would probably have sipped another latte and said; “go on lads, work away”.
Would their answer be the same if they were asked now? That mood has changed again. To look at it another way; if those same soldiers had stayed at home in 1914, would they not also have jeered the returning volunteers? What are we like, as a people? Are we all so volatile? The more you think about anything, the less clear it becomes – only those with Yeats’ “passionate intensity”, the intensity of the swell, can be sure of what they are doing. And they, he said, are the worst of us all.
Another road, a new bypass, is being planned near Newgrange and every alternative proposal for a route has been dismissed by those involved. I still don’t know – since I first heard of it I‘ve been trying, and failing, to decide what‘s right and what‘s wrong in this situation. How can they be so sure that theirs’ is the only way? Can they really be holding their minds steady amidst the waves?