Northern Ireland news

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna to visit grave of forgotten relative who died in First World War

Claire Hanna and her father Eamonn plan their trip to the WW1 battlefields in France. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

SOUTH Belfast MLA Claire Hanna is to travel to a military cemetery in northern France to pay her respects to a deceased relative whose war record only recently came to light.

Alongside her father Eamon, the SDLP representative will visit the grave of Dennis Hanna on Monday, a former telegram delivery boy who made a cameo appearance at the signing of the Ulster Covenant.

Ms Hanna previously knew little of her paternal grandfather's cousin, but four years ago she decided to investigate a long-standing claim that a family member had been present at the ceremonial signing of the covenant in Belfast City Hall in September 1912.

"The main players were, of course, Edward Carson, surrounded by the nobility and notables of Ulster unionism," she said.

"Apparently, unnoticed to all, a 15-year-old nationalist telegram delivery boy, after finishing delivering supportive messages from throughout the British Empire, had cheekily slipped into the picture and secured his place in posterity."

While census details subsequently confirmed Dennis Hanna was indeed working a telegram delivery boy in 1912, Mrs Hanna did not know what became of her relation, a Catholic who had lived in Anderson Street in the Short Strand area of Belfast.

She assumed he had died "some time in the 1940s", but after discussing the story in a radio interview, fresh details emerged.

"During the interview, a caller from the from Short Strand rang in to inform me of the documented fate of Dennis," the MLA said.

"He had joined the Royal Irish Rifles and had died aged 19 on August 18 1916 and is buried at Vermelles British Cemetery in the Pas-de-Calais department of France."

Mrs Hanna said her paternal grandfather’s family were staunch supporters of Joe Devlin and the Irish Parliamentary Party, while her paternal grandmother’s family had been early supporters of Sinn Féin.

"I can only surmise that having a dead British soldier in my father’s family was a source of embarrassment or tension and thus the fate of Dennis had been excised from the intimate family history."

However, the South Belfast MLA said that 100 years on, his previously unacknowledged sacrifice could now be better understood.

"Our own family history, and this visit to France, underline to me that while in some ways we might be emotionally and politically locked into the past, we can gladly acknowledge that this island has changed, that commemorations of both the Easter Rising and the Somme can remember all those who died, that a life lost whether at the GPO or in France was equally tragic for that family.

"I believe Dennis and many thousands of young men like him were sacrificed in a needless, unjust war, and his story has an additional sadness because he was essentially written out of the wider family story because of the political context of the time. How and who we remember has moved on."

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