Thursday, 17 March 2016

A tranquil setting is a timely reminder
of the evils of war and nationalism

Evening tranquillity on Saint Patrick’s Day in the German War Cemetery in Glencree, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

During a short walk through Dublin city centre earlier this week on my way to a board meeting in Christ Church Cathedral, I was impressed that as part of the 1916 centenary commemorations the Bank of Ireland in College Green has been decorated with a large banner celebrating the lives of Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Steward Parnell and John Redmond.

These four patriots represent a strong, continuous tradition of Irish parliamentary and democratic action, and it seem so appropriate that during these commemorations these leading democrats should be celebrated on the façade of the building that once housed the Irish Parliament, ‘Grattan’s Parliament,’ until the Act of Union was passed in 1800.

A reminder of parliamentary democracy at ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ in Dublin this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

One Sinn Féin councillor, with an air of the surreal, has tweeted: “Tourists will be torturing the poor guides with ‘so, where did these guys fight?”

Of course, he conveniently forgets that Sinn Féin did take part in the 1916, that in 1916 the Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith was a monarchist who advocated a dual monarchy for Britain and Ireland, and that the IRA was not formed until long after the Easter Rising.

It is not just Easter, but Saint Patrick’s Day too that have been hijacked this year, so that they have been robbed of their religious significance and turned into celebrations that are in danger of supporting a very narrow view of nationalism that writes out the stories of those who eschewed violence and advocated both a democratic and a more inclusive set of values for Ireland.

From army barracks to working for peace … the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in the spring sunshine this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

This was no day to go into the city centre. Instead, two of us decided this afternoon to celebrate this “green and pleasant land” by going up into the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, through Cruagh and Killakee, across the Feather Bed and down into the little valley of Glencree, with the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation and the German War Cemetery by the banks of the River Dargle.

When I was more active in the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Glencree was a regular venue for residential committee meetings and for training workshops in nonviolent direct action.

But the centre has a more militaristic background. We approached it this afternoon along a military road built over 200 years ago to hunt down the United Irish rebels who were holding out in the Wicklow Mountains after the 1798 Rising.

The army built a barracks at Glencree in 1806, but this was vacated after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. In 1858, the buildings were converted into Saint Kevin’s, a reformatory school run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

During World War I, Glencree held German prisoners of war. The school reopened after the war, but finally closed in 1940. During World War II, Glencree was used as a detention centre for German pilots who crashed in Ireland and for German agents captured trying to plan anti-British activities with IRA collaborators.

After World War II, the Irish Red Cross and the French Sisters of Charity ran Operation Shamrock, caring for German and Polish war orphans in Glencree until 1950.

The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation was set up in 1974 and continues to run programmes on violence, war and conflict and to provide training in mediation and conflict resolution.

We had coffee and a snack with friends in the Armoury Café, where the conversation included recollections of days of CND activism and nonviolent protests.

The German War Cemetery in Glencree, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

From there, we crossed the road to the German War Cemetery (Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof). There are 134 graves, mainly of German air force, army and navy personnel: 53 are identified, 28 are unknown, and six are World War I prisoners of war.

But 46 graves tell the tragic story of German civilian detainees who were being shipped from Britain to Canada for internment. Their ship, the SS Arandora Star, was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Tory Island, Co Donegal, in July 1940.

The grave of the German spy Dr Hermann Görtz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

One grave is that of Dr Hermann Görtz, a German spy who died by suicide after World War II, fearing he was going to be handed over to the Soviet Union to face trial for war crimes.

In the 1930s, Görtz had been jailed for four years in Maidstone for espionage, and was then deported to Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, he parachuted into Ballivor, Co Meath, as part of an espionage mission to gather information. He arrived with his uniform, his World War I medals, and papers marking out selected military targets in Ireland.

Görtz moved in with a former IRA leader Jim O’Donovan. As ‘Agent V-Held,’ O’Donovan had visited Germany three times in 1939 on behalf of the IRA, and Görtz was sent to Ireland to act as a liaison officer with the IRA and to enlist IRA support for a German invasion of Britain.

However, Görtz decided that the IRA was too unreliable. Dressed in his Luftwaffe uniform, he walked to Dublin, where he stayed in a number of “safe houses” in, Templeogue, Glenageary, Dún Laoghaire, Dalkey, Rathmines and Shankill, Co Dublin. He also stayed briefly in Brittas Bay, and in Laragh Castle, Glendalough, Co Wicklow, Fenit, Co Kerry and Mount Nugent, Co Cavan.

For 19 months, he remained at large. His spying operations against Ireland and Britain were aided by Anthony Deery of Dundalk, an IRA wireless operator who transmitted his coded messages to Nazi Germany, and Charlie McGuinness of the IRA who helped him to move around Ireland.

When police raided the Clontarf home of another IRA activist Stephen Carroll Held, in May 1940, they found Görtz’s parachute, papers, war medals, and documents outlining his widespread spying operations, as well as detailed plans of ‘Plan Kathleen,’ an IRA plan to invade Northern Ireland with the military support of Nazi Germany.

Görtz went into hiding but was arrested as yet another IRA member, Pearse Paul Kelly, was visiting him in his hiding place in Dublin in November 1941.

He was released from jail in August 1946, but when he was rearrested the following year and served with a deportation order he took a phial of cyanide and died in Mercer’s Hospital. He was buried in a Dublin cemetery, but his body was transferred to the German Military Cemetery in Glencree in 1974.

A mother’s grief … a Pieta mosaic in the German War Cemetery in Glencree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The cemetery in Glencree is a tranquil place today. Many of the graves are marked simply in German with epitaphs such as “Two German Soldiers,” or “Two German Airmen.” Many of those who are named were only in their 20s when they died.

The waterfall behind the German cemetery in Glencree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In this afternoon’s sunshine, with the babbling sound of the river and the small waterfall behind me, this was a place of peace and calm. But it was also a reminder that the victims of war are so often young people, and a reminder of the follies and evils of nationalism, whether it is the extreme nationalism of Nazis in Germany or the IRA in Ireland. We must continue to value our democracy and to celebrate those who chose the path of democratic and nonviolent action.

‘A terrible beauty is born’ … words from ‘Easter 1916’ by WB Yeats in Dame Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Further along Dame Street, between the Bank of Ireland and Christ Church Cathedral, another public building, in front of Dublin Castle and facing the Olympia Theatre has been draped with the closing, chilling words of the poem ‘Easter 1916’ by WB Yeats:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


A poetic reminder of war at the entrance to the German cemetery in Glencree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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