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My rebel uncles and the empire

MY FATHER mentioned it casually on the phone, just when I thought I knew everything.

I was writing a volume of poems about Downpatrick in County Down. They were stories of a broadly nationalist town, and a broadly nationalist family which had become embroiled for a while in what we in Northern Ireland call ‘the troubles’.

My town. My family. Mostly, it was about all the bits and pieces you hold on to tightly when you are nearing 40 and your parents are getting older just as fast as you are.

What you expect from all that remembering is safety, comfort and peace of mind. What you don’t expect is to hear something entirely new, almost shocking.

Well, that’s exactly what I got, over the phone, in 1999.

It turned out that two of my great-uncles, George Linton and Henry Smyth, had served in the British Army. Henry died in Rawalpindi in today’s Pakistan, in 1899. George was killed in action two months later on Hart’s Hill in south Africa during the breakthrough which lifted the Boer siege of Ladysmith, one of the great moments of British imperial history. I only knew it from the character of Albert Edward Ladysmith Steptoe in the sitcom Steptoe and Son. (His son answered, grumpily, to Harold Albert Kitchener …)

My father remembered, in his childhood, a photograph of the two soldiers in uniform, taken sometime in the early 1890s on what must have been their only time at home together. They were half-brothers - George his mother's son, Henry his father's. My own grandfather - also Henry - was born a few months after the first Henry (his brother) died in India. These were days of large families and early graves.

George's own father had died by a mishap with a revolver - shot in the belly in a kitchen in Fountain Street. He had resisted treatment and died slowly in great distress. His young wife married my great-grandfather. If he hadn't been shot dead, I wouldn't be here. Twisty turnings of the blood.

Of course, that photograph is lost - how could it survive? In fact, the house is lost, the street is lost. Their names are not recorded on family headstones in the parish graveyard. There was nothing of them left.

Or so I thought.

The Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899 between the small Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State in south Africa and the full pomp and glory of the British Empire. In the early months of the war, there were spectacular Boer successes, the most disastrous for Britain being the carnage on Spion Kop on January 24th 1900. So deeply did this reverse enter the British mind that the name ‘Spion Kop’ survives to this day as a stand in Liverpool Football Club’s ground at Anfield, as a tribute to Scousers who were killed in that attack.

And, for a while, the hill of Irish Street in Downpatrick was also known as ‘Spion Kop’ among the town’s more loyal citizens because it was the heartland of Catholic disaffection in the town.

After the Relief of Ladysmith on February 28th 1900, the war turned decisively in favour of the huge British forces, though it was not until May 1902 that the Boers surrendered. The conflict is chiefly remembered now for the British invention of ‘concentration camps’, for the Boer invention of guerrilla warfare and for the upsurge of Afrikaaner nationalism which hardened after the Second World War into the system of apartheid.

I thought I’d check up on George Linton and Henry Smyth, if I could. I knew nothing of the machinery of ‘family tree tracing’ or ‘genealogy’ which has become such a big industry here, particularly between Ulster and America and through the TV franchise Who Do You Think You Are? in the UK. But using the internet, I found all the information I needed about ‘Ladysmith’. And then, thanks to the wonderful thoroughness of the South African government in remembering all the dead of all the conflicts on its soil, I found George Linton’s name listed among the British dead. Five days before Ladysmith was relieved, he had been killed storming the crest of Hart’s Hill among what were known as the Tugela Battlefields.

I pursued George further, since there seemed more detail on his life. One day, I opened an envelope from South Africa and found inside a photograph of his headstone rising out of the rocky soil of the veldt. I was able to show that photograph to my ailing father. It was the first news of George since, most likely, the telegram had arrived in 1900 to the lodging house in John Street his mother ran. No one til that moment had seen his name on a headstone or knew where he lay.

He wasn’t on his own. There were six other soldiers buried with him under a stone ‘erected by the officers and NCOs of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers’. He had died on February 23rd. My birthday.

Inquiries among the voluminous papers of the War Office and India Office in London revealed George’s medal roll – and also Henry Smyth’s remarkable service record.

So keen had Henry been to join up that he had enlisted no fewer than three times in three different regiments – the Liverpools, the Royal Irish Rifles and, finally, the Royal Horse Artillery. Unfortunately, he lied about his past service and the fact that he had deserted from the Rifles. (That regiment was based in Downpatrick, in fact in barracks right across the road from his own home, and I suspect those weren’t quite the foreign parts the young adventurer had in mind.) He spent just over a year in military prison in England before being sent to India, where he served for seven years, seeing action in the Punjab and in Tirah, before succumbing to rheumatic fever. Ironically, he had been turned down for the Liverpools as ‘physically unfit for service’. His medals are lost.

The researches in London, though, turned up their very signatures. Henry's forms, in particular, showed corrections on the spelling of his name - it would be noted down on the registration forms as 'Smith' (when he wasn't masquerading as 'McCartan'!) but, on each occasion, there is a correction inserting a 'y'. That stubborn attention to detail and a little vanity was very familiar.

These true stories sat in my mind for a year. When I came to write them down, they came in the form of dialogue and I found myself writing a play. I had no experience of playwriting at all, but I did want to hear George’s story from his own mouth. And along with George came Henry with his Crown and Harp tattoo, his wayward personality and his neck of solid brass.

To me the whole process of recovering these two young men has been intensely moving. It should have been disturbing, I suppose. After all, this is 2002. We’ve had 30 years of political violence in Northern Ireland precisely because of ‘loyalty’ and ‘disloyalty’, identity and allegiance, Catholics and Protestants, Britishness and Irishness, unionism and nationalism. There are deaths more recent, wounds still raw and angry.

But for me, they are recent deaths. And I feel their loss. The play is just a way of piecing together two individual lives after more than a century. It is about acknowledging, saluting even, the hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics who went to war on behalf of an empire which their nation of origin only later learned to disown.

It is not as if Ireland didn’t help build that empire and help sustain it. We did. We all did. There is no point wishing that we didn’t. It is also true that our antagonisms and clashes of loyalty on this island in the early 20th century helped to dismantle it.

It is at the same time an extraordinary and ordinary story. Extraordinary, because these two soldiers, who had been in all respects forgotten (the way poor people of past times generally are), have been remembered by their own family, their names spoken again, after a gap of more than 100 years. Extraordinary, too, because a family connection stoutly nationalist from generation to generation can have two such characters tucked away in the cupboard.

There is no reason to think that George and Henry were not nationalist. Not subversive, yes. Certainly not some brand of ‘honorary English’.

They were Irish and in the army. And they were not on their own. Irish Catholics in the army didn’t begin with Redmond’s Irish Volunteers in the Great War. Not by a long way. They may have been ignored and their memories slighted subsequently for politically-expedient reasons north and south. But they were there. They went to war. And very many of them, like George and Henry, never came back. Death isn’t the sentimental designer exile of ex-pats in Kilburn or Irish pubs in Brussels or New York. It’s very painful and very lonely. And it’s permanent.

George and Henry were two of the disappeared. Soldiers of the Queen is a way of bringing their bodies home from foreign parts. A re-interment with full honours in the family plot. I reach my hand out now and touch their coats.

In many ways, they were the real rebels after all.

Versions of this piece appeared in the Belfast Telegraph 24 September 2002 and in The Down Recorder (2004). The play Soldiers of the Queen premiered in the arts centre in Downpatrick in 2002 and went to the Belfast Festival that year.

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