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Remembrance helps us to learn about our shared history, that includes people across faith and ethnic backgrounds. There’s no point in a shared history if we forget about it.

~ Sunder Katwala, Director, British Future

An October 2012 YouGov poll commissioned by British Future, a non-partisan Think Tank dedicated to exploring national identity, the very crux of who we are, reveals that less than half of respondents aged 16 to 24 can identify 1914 as the year World War I broke out. More than half are unaware of the contributions of other countries to the British war effort.  Australia, Kenya, India, Canada . . . all sent men, money, and munitions. In fact, during World War I, over 1.3 million Indian soldiers volunteered to fight. In World War II, that number doubled, but over the past century, we appear to have lost sight of what Shiraz Maher describes as a “remarkable template of civic cooperation . . . between different races and religions, united by common purpose.”  It has disappeared in history

As the Centenary approaches, so too does an opportunity for remembrance beyond mere commemoration, an opportunity to consider the poppy, worn proudly by my grandfather who fought The Great War, as a symbol of remembrance. It would never have occurred to him that the poppy pinned to his lapel might cause offense to anyone in Ireland. Lest we forget, the Irish died in the trenches along with the British. But the poppy – like the shamrock, the pink ribbon, the wedding ring, the star-spangled banner – is a contentious and complex symbol, and the debate still roars over whether or not it should be worn in Ireland. For some, it represents British imperialism, and wearing it is akin to endorsing and glorifying British soldiers who, on a Sunday in 1972, during a Civil Rights march in the Bogside, shot into a crowd of unarmed and peaceful civilians, killing thirteen of them.  Bloody Sunday. Enniskillen. Omagh. All tragically wrong. How long must we sing this song?


Twenty five years ago, on the night of the Enniskillen bombing, far from home at the McNicholls Arena in Denver, U2 took to the stage with this:

“Well here we are, the Irish in America. 

The Irish have been coming to America for years
Going back to the Great Famine,
When the Irish were on the run from starvation
And a British government that couldn’t care less

Right up to today you know,
There are more Irish immigrants here in America today than ever
Some illegal, some legal
A lot of them are just running from high unemployment.

Some run from the troubles in Northern Ireland
From the hatred of the H-blocks and torture.
Others from wild acts of terrorism
Like we had today in a town called Enniskillen
Where 11 people lie dead many more injured
On a Sunday Bloody Sunday …”

In the middle of the song, sick of the killing, Bono had this to say. I consider it a seminal moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, in my own history, and it rings in my ears on this Remembrance Sunday:

And let me tell you something . . . I’ve had enough of Irish Americans who haven’t been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home…and the glory of the revolution…and the glory of dying for the revolution. Fuck the revolution! They don’t talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What’s the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and his children? Where’s the glory in that?

Where’s the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where’s the glory in that? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead under the rubble of the revolution, that the majority of the people in my country don’t want. Sing ‘No More!’

A decade later, he sang the song again, turning it into a prayer for Omagh, where the Real IRA loaded a non-descript car with 500 pounds of explosives, parked it in the middle of the little market town, where it exploded, killing twenty-nine people and injuring hundreds. I will never forget the Omagh bombing. It happened during my daughter’s first trip to Ireland. Not quite eight months old, she was the surprise for my mother’s 60th birthday party. I remember that night holding her tight while watching the news in my parent’s house, the accounts from witnesses who were devastated by the blood that flowed in the gutters, the pieces of people on the street: “Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. People were lying on the floor with limbs missing and there was blood all over the place. People were crying for help and looking for something to kill the pain. Other people were crying out looking for relatives. You could not really be trained for what you had seen unless you were trained in Vietnam or somewhere like that” recalls one of the volunteer nuns on the scene at Tyrone County Hospital. A war-zone. A killing field.

If I could find a poppy in Phoenix, Arizona, I think I would wear it every day as a plea to end all wars, as a full stop on the list of dead. The Omagh list of dead “reads like a microcosm of Troubles deaths, and left no section of Irish life untouched. The town they attacked is roughly 60:40 Catholic:Protestant, and the dead consisted of Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon and two Spanish visitors. They killed young, old and middle-aged, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grannies. They killed republicans and unionists, including a prominent local member of the Ulster Unionist Party. They killed people from the backbone of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). They killed unborn twins, bright students, cheery shop assistants and many young people. They killed three children from the Irish Republic who were up north on a day trip. Everyone they killed was a civilian. The toll of death was thus both extraordinarily high and extraordinarily comprehensive.”

How could Omagh happen after Enniskillen, where twenty-five years ago, at 10.43AM the IRA detonated a bomb without warning, killing eleven ordinary people and injuring sixty:

What have we learned? Today, for the first time, an Irish Prime Minister and Deputy Minister have participated in Remembrance Sunday outside the Republic of Ireland, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny saying, after laying a wreath at the memorial in Enniskillen, “I don’t think there’s a family or community or a parish anywhere in Ireland that wasn’t touched by the great wars that didn’t have family members, members of the community who lost lives or who suffered in those wars. This is part of our shared history and I wanted, and the Irish government wanted to be part of sharing that remembrance.” But every account I have read today, makes the point that Mr. Kenny did not wear a poppy, the wreath of green laurel he laid for the Irish government, incongruous among the crimson poppies.

My grandfather died on June 22, 1977, a decade before the Enniskillen bombing. Had he been alive, I imagine he would have been wearing his suit, medals and poppy attached to the lapels, not unlike those pensioners at the Enniskillen Cenotaph. Granda never forgot the wars.  He made sure I remembered too.

Because of Granda, I have always known that “the war to end all wars” ended in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He told me so many times on our walks down the Moss Road. At just 25, he had been part of that “template of civic cooperation.” Private James McFadden, No. 15823, he enlisted as a volunteer soldier with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Following his training at Finner Camp in County Donegal, he was shipped off to France, where he fought, scared yet brave, in the Battle of the Somme and at Passchendaele. For untold miles, he crept through the muck, weary, thirsty, lost, and far from home. One of the few, too few, that survived the battle at Passchendaele, Granda carried to safety another soldier, Sammy Campbell, who hailed from The Upperlands, a village outside Maghera. Granda told my mother the story many times. Too, he told of the hunger that drove him to steal chickens from a French farm, of the thirst and weariness that almost broke him.

Private James McFadden

My grandfather did not belong in the muck. He belonged on the banks of the Moyola River, fishing, or cutting turf at The Moss. All these years later, it saddens me to picture him far away from the bluebells and foxgloves that once lined winding lanes to houses along the Broagh road. By the time I was doing O-level English, learning by heart much of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” I had already committed to memory my grandfather’s own story of  the “war and the pity of war,” fought on faraway fields, in particular, of a dark evening that found him and his brothers in arms, afraid, parched with thirst, their billy cans empty. Crawling on their bellies through a field somewhere in France, I imagine they felt something close to euphoria when they came upon the stream, followed by a horror that would haunt Granda into old age. I shudder to think of him cupping the water in his hands, bringing it up to his face, then noticing it was tinged with red. Flowing in the foreign water was also the blood of a young German soldier who had died not too far away. Phlegmatic, my grandfather recounted those details in a voice I can still hear. I can see his beautiful eyes, twinkling the same blue as mine, his checked shirt, and the tweed cap he habitually twirled in the fingers of his left hand.

with Dr. Linda Liu

When Granda died, I was just a girl, the world at my feet. Then, I could never have imagined myself facing fifty on the other side of the world, or becoming so like my mother, or being sick. I would never have predicted a diagnosis of breast cancer, and I am angry that it was handed to me on a Remembrance Day thus forever encroaching on my November memories Granda. There it is, in a diary, angrily encircled in black pen – a simple pronouncement “1PM Diagnosis” defines November 11th 2011. Parenthesized below “genetic testing” on November 30th is “negative.” Such deceptively simple notations on a calendar, their urgency all but disappeared along with the careful concern with which the Breast Patient Navigator initially inquired if someone would be coming with me to those early appointments. Instead, her chatter is cheery and inconsequential, because the news is good this year. The diagnostic mammogram of my left breast is clear, so two days ago, I spent those moments of “solitary confinement” – the period between the nurse leaving and the doctor arriving – not panicking, as last year, but waiting patiently for my brilliant surgeon, Linda Liu, who would reconfirm that all is well. This year, there is no pregnant pause before leafing through my large file to find the mammogram results; there is no need to recommend another mastectomy; and, further genetic testing is unnecessary.

Thus, I am released for another year. I will see my medical oncologist next week and my family physician next week. Between us, we have to come up with a plan to deal with Tamoxifen and its upsetting effects on the way I like to live my life – rested. I will ask him again to tell me I did the right thing to decline chemotherapy, four cycles of Taxotere and Cytoxan based on my Oncotype DX Recurrence Number.  And, I hope he will send me on my way into the kind of unscheduled life I led before Remembrance Day 2011, where  appointments and anniversaries have more to do with deciding what movie to see and where to go for dinner with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, or what picture I might shoot for the photography assignments that are due each Saturday morning.

In A Piece of Work, the documentary about her life, Joan Rivers shares she is driven still by a need to have “every hour of every day in her appointment book filled.” Holding up a blank page on her calendar, she exclaims “You want to see fear. I’ll show you fear.”  For me, I think the opposite is true. Filling up the calendar reminds me that every day is an anniversary of something, a reminder to be afraid or sad or joyful, and sometimes, I think I would far rather just accept the day as it unfolds, minute by minute, no reminders necessary to remember my grandfather, my history, my future.

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