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Culture, Northern Ireland, and the Second World War

Guy Woodward
Oxford University Press


From the Introduction

On Friday 8 October 1999 a crowd gathered outside the City Hall in Belfast to witness the unveiling by the Lord Mayor of a memorial to James Magennis, the only serviceman from Northern Ireland to be awarded the Victoria Cross for service during the Second World War. Magennis was Catholic and from the Falls Road area of West Belfast, and the ways in which his wartime story has been celebrated, contested, forgotten, remem­bered, and, more recently, memorialized in Northern Ireland since 1945 illustrate the strikingly complex relationship, sometimes fraught and often muted, that has existed between the province and the Second World War.1 Fifty-four years earlier Magennis, a diver on a midget submarine, had carried out a daring and physically demanding underwater raid on a Japanese heavy cruiser moored off Singapore.2 His Victoria Cross citation came through from Buckingham Palace on 13 November 1945, while Magennis was stationed at a submarine base in Sydney, Australia, and the news broke in Belfast the same day. The Belfast Telegraph carried an interview with Magennis's mother, said to be 'the proudest woman in Ulster today', and the following day 'Heartiest congratulations' were sent to the diver in a telegram by the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Basil Brooke. The celebrations continued on Magennis's return to Belfast on 14 December. The next day he was mobbed by crowds outside the City Hall as he arrived at a reception given by the Lord Mayor and corporation. The Mayor, Sir Crawford McCullagh, told him that he had 'added lustre to the annals of the British Empire', and Magennis was later presented with a gift of £3,066 that had been collected by the people of Northern Ireland. Sectarian tensions do not seem to have surfaced in these civic responses to the hero's return, but when Magennis visited his old school, the Catholic St Finian's on the Falls Road, children reportedly refused to stand to welcome the uniformed sailor.3 Magennis's biographer George Fleming claims that:

It was clear that he was not wanted in Protestant Unionist East Belfast and neither was he wanted in Catholic Nationalist West Belfast. That uneasiness about a former pupil winning a high decoration for bravery in the British armed forces felt even by the teachers and pupils in his old school St Finian's was hardening into something else, as attitudes in Northern Ireland them­selves hardened. He was the little guy in the middle caught in a strange religious and political trap.4

The revival of interest in James Magennis in the late 1990s seems almost entirely due to Fleming's letter writing campaign for the commemora­tion of Magennis's achievement, which succeeded in attracting significant interest from newspapers in Northern Ireland. In February 1997 Belfast City Council voted to erect a monument, and the present memorial in bronze and Portland stone was unveiled two years later. Fleming's biog­raphy also inspired at least two poems: 'James "Mick" Magennis VC by Tom Paulin, and Michael Longley's 'Ocean', subtitled 'Homage to James "Mick" Magennis VC, were both published in 2000.

On the day of the unveiling, Lord Fitt, former leader of the SDLP and himself a merchant seaman during the Second World War, told the Belfast News Letter that it was a shame that the tribute had taken fifty years to be erected.5 Sinn Fein councillors and assembly members boycotted the event, and almost all of the politicians present were unionist, but none on record addressed Fitt's implicit claim that it was Magennis's Catholic back­ground that had delayed the civic recognition eventually granted to him. The convoluted post-war response to his story is perhaps symptomatic of an enduring reluctance within Northern Ireland to examine its place in the Second World War or to address the impact of the war on the province, and the physical awkwardness of the original underwater mission is ech­oed by later historical contortions.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many in Northern Ireland seemed unwilling to dwell on the significance of the war. Nationalists may have been reluctant to face the probability that but for the province's stra­tegic geopolitical location, within the United Kingdom and on the edge of the Atlantic, the war in Europe would have had a longer and bloodier course; if unionists were keen to cite the involvement of Northern Ireland in the war as proof of the indissoluble bonds of the union, the fact that significant numbers of Catholics from north and south of the border fought with distinction in the British armed forces during the conflict was problematic. The Second World War occupies a seemingly irresolv­able position in relation to the Troubles: Glenn Patterson's novel Fat Lad (1993) notes the irony of British regiments who served with distinction in the Normandy landings of 1944 being deployed in far more controversial circumstances in Northern Ireland a quarter of a century later.6 The post­war silence around James Magennis is demonstrative of a resignation to the probability that the province's position during the war was too difficult either to appropriate or explain.

The subaqueous nature of Magennis's mission also seems relevant when considering the cultural history of Northern Ireland and the war, where the submersion of artefacts and paraphernalia is a pervasive theme of a dis­course which itself has often existed in a submerged or sunken state. The most striking monuments to the Second World War in Northern Ireland are out of sight and underwater, and include dozens of German U-boats that litter the sea bed of the Atlantic Ocean off Malin Head.7 Like the Allied merchant ships and naval vessels they hunted, some sank during the Battle of the Atlantic, but many, following the surrender of their German crews, were deliberately towed from berths at Lisahally on the Foyle out to sea and scuttled.8 Some of the flying-boats used to hunt these U-boats were also sunk when they became surplus to requirements at the end of the war. On Lough Erne in County Fermanagh in 1947, six Royal Air Force Catalinas were towed into the middle of the lake, where Marine Craft crew opened the sea-cocks and set about the bodies of the aircraft with axes, sending them to the bottom. Local historian Breege McCusker writes that 'they soon disappeared from sight but not from memory'.