Derry man Conor Heaney is a special advisor to veteran republican leader, Martin McGuinness, but this week he will pay his respects to his great-grandfather, Patrick Heaney, who died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Conor is but one of the many proud republicans and nationalists from Derry whose relatives fought in the British Army during World War I from 1914 to 1918.
Mr. McGuinness has been invited to attend the 100th anniversary commemorations by the Flemish government.
“The story about my great-grandfather and his brother is just a part of the complex history we share here in Ireland,” said Conor.
“I am a proud republican, but several of my relatives fought in the British Army because they believed what they were doing back then was the right thing to do - they believed they were fighting for a better future.”
Conor will accompany recently elected MLA for Foyle and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, when he visits Flanders Field and the Somme Battlefied this week.
“My great-grandfather is buried in a cemetery in Béthune in Northern France - it will be the first time I will have ever visited his grave but I am going there to pay my respects.
“Many of my family went on to be involved in the Irish War of Independence like the McCauleys and the McDaids - some of my relatives who fought in the British Army returned home to Ireland and put the skills they learned in the army to use during the war in Ireland,” added Conor.
Conor’s great-grandfather, who also played for Derry in an All-Ireland hurling semi-final in 1909, is one of the many names included on the Diamond War Memorial however, Conor, said he has and never will visit the monument.
“I can remember my great-grandfather in my own way. I don’t want to romanticise what was essentially an imperialistic war. Men like my great-grandfather acted with integrity - they thought they were doing the right thing but what they were was canon fodder for the ruling classes.
“I have no affinity with the Diamond War Memorial in the same way I have no affinity with the poppy - I’ll remember my relatives in my own way,” he added.
Like Conor, another Derry man, Mark Mullan, is a special advisor to Martin McGuinness and he also had relatives who fought and died in World War I.
“When my father talked about my great-grandfather and great-grand uncle who fought in World War I, he would have told me that they genuinely believed that they were going off to fight for the freedom of small nations. Sadly, they and millions of men like them, were used by the ruling classes for their own ends.
“James Mullan was my great-grandfather and Joseph Mullan was my great-grand uncle - they were both from Ramelton in Co. Donegal. James was injured while fighting in France but he returned home to Ireland and joined the I.R.A. where he put his skills to use,” maintained Mark.
My great-grandfather is buried in a cemetery in Béthune in Northern France - it will be the first time I will have ever visited his grave but I am going there to pay my respects.Conor Heaney
Mark believes his relatives were principled men but was critical of those responsible for sending so many men to their deaths during World War I.
“My great-grandfather and his brother believed they were doing the right thing. They believed they were standing up for what was right. They had no means by which they could challenge what they were being told by the likes of John Redmond (Irish Parliamentary Party Leader 1900-1918) - it was a disastrous war for Europe and a disastrous war for Ireland.”
Tony Doherty was only nine years-old when his father, Patrick Doherty, was murdered by the British Army on Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972.
Tony, now a prominent community worker in Derry, went on to join the I.R.A.
Like Conor and Mark, Tony is open and honest about his republican views and beliefs but it was whilst researching his family background that he discovered his great-grandfather, Joseph McFrederick fought with the Royal Irish Rifles and died at Flanders on August 25, 1917.
“It was strange to discover that I had a relative who was in the British Army during World War I and then the British Army were responsible for killing my father on Bloody Sunday,” noted Tony.
“My great-grandfather, Joseph, was from Killea and he was born a Presbyterian. He married my great-grandmother and together they raised six daughters and one son in Hamilton Street in Derry.
“I only made this discovery two months ago and my great-grandfather’s name is on the Diamond War Memorial. I always felt a sense of detachment from the collective way in which the war dead are remembered.
“The Royal British Legion are opposed to republicanism, therefore, I and many others like me can’t sign up to the way in which they remember war dead, but it won’t stop me from remembering my great-grandfather in my own way.”
Tony added: “I have no doubt that my great-grandfather thought he was doing the right thing when he went off to fight and it’s very hard to criticise someone when they are acting according to their principles.”