Understanding the past and laying aside blame in Mayo Peace Park
By Terry Reilly (c)
Leo Tolstoy did not have to have to dig too deep into his creative brain to come up with the title War and Peace for his masterpiece spun around life in Russia during the Napoleonic era.
For life, since time began, has be a continium of war and peace, blood, savagery, trickery, corruption, tribalism, a power-and-wealth-warlust that rages on to this very day in many of the world’s trouble spots. And, no doubt, will continue into the future, with the outbreak of peace in one region closely followed by a bloody outbreak in another.
The Romans, Ghengis Khan, the Huns and the Barbarians amongst others gave many innocent bystanders good reason to be afraid. Fortunately, those warlords didn’t reach our shores, but one Oliver Cromwell did and in his ruthlessness put thousands to the sword, and ran our best and bravest from the land and into the arms of European armies anxious to recruit men of valour.
The fighting Irish became as famous throughout Europe as our country was for its saints and scholars.
Of course, Cromwell took chunks of Connaught and gave it to his ironside soldiers as reward for their blood-thirsty efficiency. (That land grab bubbled under the surface for a couple of hundred years before Parnell and Davitt and the Land League movement of James Daly struck a chord that this time would not be silenced).
Let it be conceded that Cromwell and those who came before him from across the Irish Sea did not introduce us to the brutality of life. We had had our own home-grown experiences, our killing gangs, our own raiders of foreign shores for slaves, one of whom was to become St. Patrick, patron saint of our isle. And of course the Vikings who sacked and pillaged and raped.
Moving on, Irish militia men in red coats, including those from Longford and Kilkenny, fought against Mayo men and their French stalwarts in 1798 at Castlebar, and subsequently had their revenge in tidying up the aftermath at Killala when an estimated 600 innocents died in a hail of bullets and bayonets. The mopping up party included Kerry militia. Months earlier Mayo militiamen helped quench the ardour of the Wexford ‘rebels’ in and around Vinegar Hill!
Irishmen did not baulk at joining the army of England. In fact, it was the done thing and at one stage in the 1800s it was estimated that 40 per cent of the regular English army was made up of Irishmen. Indeed every Irish county sent forth up to 300 men at a time – largely Catholic – to fill out the county militia to battalion strength, including the 3rd North Mayo Militia and the 30th South Mayo militia. The militia, headed by Protestant officers who were usually local landowners, quickly became recruiting grounds for the regular army and were regularly replenished.
Mayomen fought and distinguished themselves in the Peninsular War and the Crimean War, and stood beside Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Others were to serve in the Empire-building British army in India, and in Zulu land, and against the Boers in South Africa, and indeed with the Boers under Major John MacBride of Westport.
Irish men – and Mayo men – saw in uniform an Empire on which the sun never set. This ‘military tradition’ is often forgotten when we puzzle over why so many young Mayo men signed up for the deadly trenches of the first World War and died in their hundreds.
Reasons advanced as to why so many joined at that time rarely touch on this aspect of our tradition: historians often point to lack of opportunity at home, dull lives desirous of adventure, or abject poverty as reasons for the rush to arms while ignoring another and perhaps more obvious and powerful magnet – custom!
Remember, in Mayo for instance, military barracks were important infrastructures in towns such asBallina, Castlebar, Ballinrobe, Foxford, Ballaghaderreen and Westport, and recruits from these centres and their hinterlands came forward readily whenever the recruiting agents and their military bands came a-calling. Traces of the barracks where men were stationed may have all but vanished – and with them the traditions of the military bands – but they were still part of the streetscape of those who enlisted in 1914. These volunteers were merely following in the footsteps of their fathers, or uncles or grandfathers who would have brought back amazing tales of exotic places and no doubt great victories!
Far from resenting the presence of barracks, towns in Mayo, as elsewhere, were anxious to hold onto theirs, and the militia men who peopled them. A barracks in a town was as good as a factory, for it gave employment and young men with trades such as shoemakers, musicians, clerks, carpenters, nailors, etc. readily answered England’s call and joined up. Remarkably, in many cases even wives and children followed their husbands/fathers, walking prodigious distances from camp to camp in often appalling conditions in all kinds of weather as battalions transversed the country.
And, as it’s a given that armies march on their stomachs, the money spent on feeding and provisioning men was a welcome boost to local shopkeepers who were glad of the business. Understandably then, barracks were jealously guarded by the merchant princes, and when in the 1860s an effort was made to move the North Mayo Militia HQ from Ballina to Castlebar it was roundly condemned in the local papers and railed against by the merchants of the town: no doubt had the shoe been on the other foot the Castlebar response would have been the same!
The North Mayo and the South Mayo Militia were eventually to morph into the Connaught Rangers, who paid such a heavy price in WWI. And those who survived, and had seen mud mix with blood and gore, and also saw wonderful sights in far off exotic lands, came home to a changed country and thought it prudent to push their myriad experiences into the backs of their minds as their lungs heaved from exposure to poisonous gas and their damaged ear drums muffled conversation about them. For many the locking away of memories and thoughts of fallen comrades must have been the hardest and most unexpected aspect that had to be silently endured.
Our tradition for providing fighting men has long since been transformed into marshalling men and women who have excelled and are excelling at their UN peace-keeping duties in troubled lands. Mayo men have died in these noble causes, and yet whenever the call is made they respond…just as their forefathers did over the centuries when Ireland was part and parcel of the Union.
Irishmen who served the Crown in the 18th, 19th and early part of the 20th centuries felt they had right on their side, that it was somehow their duty, even if they were putting manners on their own countrymen. It is grossly unfair to judge those men critically from this perspective: they lived in a different time, under different conditions and subjects of a government that was a world power and ruled the waves.
Ultimately they served so that there might be peace. Today our army works to preserve peace. All are remembered in Mayo’s Peace Park in Castlebar, underlining how far we have come in understanding our past and casting aside blame.
In 1994, in Dear Old Ballina, I lamented the fact that the many men from my town who died in WWI had no fitting memorial erected to their name. They were the forgotten soldiers in a radically and dramatically changing Ireland after the execution of the 1916 leaders. Today, with the opening of the Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar, their sacrifices are recognised, as are the contributions of all Mayo people who have served and now see an Ireland at peace.
*Article first published in Michael Feeney’s Commemorative Book to mark opening of Mayo Peace Park at Castlebar.