Hibernian Club, Dublin, 21 October 2014.
That great silence which accreted around the extraordinary conflagration of the Great War in so far as it affected Ireland, has been often, ironically, spoken of in our time. But there always has been a trace of the war, silence or no silence, inside, literally, almost everyone in Ireland.
When you consider the 200,000 that went to fight, and the 40,000 or so killed, and the countless wounded sometimes with fates so dark perhaps words can never be found to illuminate them, by mere genetic mathematics almost everyone on the island is related to those men, not to mention the uncounted thousands of women that served as nurses and the like, and the uncounted thousands who worked in munitions factories and other wartime industries.
Our DNA tells many stories indeed that our mouths and brains would rather rest in silence, or are oftentimes not even aware of, but maybe at close of day that is a part of whatever majesty we have as a creature.
Silence has a great yearning to be articulated. Silence is the great susurrus towards speech. The strand in our make-up that carries those lost people, and every one of them dead now whether they survived the war or not, the subtle, eloquent genetic strand of the Great War, is entwined into all of us, a persistent and strangely honest thread in the curious tapestry of ourselves.
It belongs to a branch of human activity in some ways so foul, and in other ways so moving, with its stories of vulnerabilities and promises, and endeavours, and most usually undertaken by the very young, that there is something to be said for shame about it, and something to be said for pride.
Turtle Bunbury’s entirely unashamed, as one might say, entirely honest book of tales about the Great War is something new, really. It is almost the first book that, in the very best sense, takes the fact of the war for granted, and the fact of our participation in it as a given – a vexed and oftentimes murderous given, but a given. He goes back with his historian’s eye, but also his humanitarian heart, and gathers together a host of tiny epics, larger epics, the strange stories and the sometimes bizarre happenstances that occurred around the conflict. His open-handed, clear-sighted and finely written book comes fresh and.
I might almost say, redeemed out of the moil and storm of controversy that surrounded the topic of the war, in a thousand different guises in the decades since its end. Whether the men who fought in it were traitors to Ireland, whether they were fools in the words of Tom Kettle, whether they went out for economic reasons, whether they were to be lumped in with the imperialists of the past, whether they were dupes and even sometimes martyrs, whether they were great heroes, at close of day is not quite the point.
Many reasons have been attributed to the soldiers going out to that war, efforts to explain, accuse, exonerate that perhaps have often occluded, in effect, the sorrows of widows, sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers, burying them under a heap of wretched dust-covers, dubious and sometimes devious strategies to erase the war from Irish history. As not important, not true, not Irish, not wanted.
But all human endeavours, no matter how ambiguous morally — and war continues to carry its terrifying burden of ambiguity, speaking to old impulses in us as a creature that are very difficult to admire — since they happen, must have their chroniclers, their story-tellers, their singers, their painters, their historians. And let them be great ones, if at all possible. And in the past couple of decades the Great War has emerged out of its silence and found many extraordinary tellers, as one might say.
Perhaps it is a tragedy of a kind that this has happened when all the Irish survivors, all the Irish witnesses even, even those who heaped that silence on it, are gone — all the secret hours when medals and other remnants were put in drawers in Irish houses, when wounded men sat out their days in institutions, too maimed for public view, when those that came home unscathed were yet inescapably scathed by deep and secret wounds, and certainly finding the sombre truth that, in their own country, pride in their deeds was not to be articulated, all that difficult and twisting silence called private life, where no historian can ever reach… Lost, gone by silently, so that even the second generation following often had no idea of their relatives’ involvement, and the third generation were entirely in the dark – perhaps it is a tragedy of a kind. But recompense can take many forms, and perhaps there is some hope of redemption in humankind that an action in the far future can reach back and do some justice to the past.
There can be a powerful, sympathetic magic in the mere writing of things down. I see Turtle’s lovely, responsible, hard-won book as a deeply considered handshake with some forgotten souls — thanking them, if that is their need, for fighting for Ireland, or an idea of a New Ireland, as many of them were, or for all the thousand reasons our 200,000 men went to the war, for the defence of small nations, or to continue a family tradition, or to answer the call of adventure.
Turtle Bunbury holds out his hand in the present, seeking the lost hands of the past, in darkness, in darkness, but also suddenly in the clear light of kindness — in the upshot acknowledging their imperilled existence with a brilliant flourish, a veritable banner, of wonderful stories.