N. Ireland Politics

A complicated past: How complex Irish history still influences our present

Patrick McGlone's World War One medals
Image caption Patrick McGlone, who was honoured for his war efforts, went on to assist the IRA when he returned to Ireland

History, as we know, can be very complicated.

Sometimes it leads us into new and unexpected territories and challenges our assumptions.

Irish history is particularly complex and when we delve into our family backgrounds, fascinating stories often emerge.

Two weeks ago I met the SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone at Stormont, and during our conversation he casually mentioned that his grandfather had served with the Durham Light Infantry in World War One.

He also told me that after his relative returned home to Ireland, he was asked to help the IRA in the 1920s.

I was intrigued, so I asked Patsy to tell his family story on BBC Northern Ireland's Sunday Politics programme for a feature on commemorations.


Patsy's grandfather, who was called Patrick McGlone, enlisted in England and served in France with distinction.

He was awarded a series of medals, including one for distinguished conduct for showing courage under fire, and the young soldier was well regarded by the military authorities.

He survived World War One and returned to Ireland at a time of great political upheaval.

Image caption SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone says his grandfather's military skills were in high demand

When violence broke out between Irish republicans and the British forces, Patrick McGlone found that his military skills were much in demand.

"An IRA unit made a raid on Bellaghy RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) station at the time and scooped a whole load of guns and armaments," Patsy told me.

"But they really weren't sure how to use them. So they brought them to my granddad to show them how to use them. Which he did."

He added: "It's the reality of our mixed-up kind of history."


The historian Dr Eamon Phoenix says the raid at Bellaghy RIC station that Patsy McGlone refers to was most likely in May 1922.

According to Sir Arthur Hezlet's book on the B Specials, the station was entered by the IRA when a constable left, leaving the door unlocked.

Members of the IRA burst in, shot one constable dead and wounded the sergeant and another constable.

Other barracks attacked that night included Draperstown in County Londonderry and Coalisland in County Tyrone.

Interest in researching family history has increased in recent months due to the anniversaries surrounding World War One and the forthcoming centenary of the Easter Rising.

Image caption Former Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley says history on the island of Ireland is "interconnected"

Former Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley is a historian who has written extensively about the past.

He says he is continually surprised by what he discovers when he carries out research.

"History does not run along parallel lines. It is not one narrative," he said.

"It is not even two narratives running along parallel lines. It is interconnected."

He added: "We are not diminished by the complexity of the narrative on this island."


Earlier this month the 99th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was marked at Belfast City Hall and the event was attended by First Minister Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan.

Image caption Irish foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan says the Easter Rising commemoration events will be inclusive

Next year there will be numerous events to commemorate the battle's centenary and it will also be the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Mr Flanagan, the most senior Irish minister ever to attend the Belfast Somme event, is involved in planning next year's Easter Rising commemorations.

He said the Easter Rising events would be inclusive and would not threaten anyone's identity or political outlook.

Almost a century on, the events of 1916 at the Somme and in Dublin still have enormous significance and importance.

History, in all its complexities, still influences our present.

Stephen Walker's full report was broadcast on BBC One NI's Sunday Politics and is available to watch on the iPlayer

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