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At last, the Great Warcomes home to Ireland

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — The joint ceremony at the World War I battle site of Messine Ridge in Belgium this week involving an Irish president and a British queen is evidence that the old "skewed, twisted and gnarled" relationships between the two countries were no longer valid, Mary McAleese said.

It is the first time heads of state from both countries have jointly officiated together at any ceremony.

The president said the inauguration of the Irish peace tower monument was a "very special and significant commemoration" for people from all over the island who died in the war whose memory had suffered from "unfair degree of ambivalence."

"They were unionist and they were nationalist, they were Catholic and they were Protestant — they were from every single part of this island — almost 50,000 of them died," President McAleese said.

She said that relatives had told her that people who had served in the British forces never really knew where they stood.

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"They kept their heads down," McAleese said. "They kept their memories in shoeboxes. It is time to redeem those memories and restored them to the place they are deserving of."

She said she hopes the Messine ceremony will represent a "redemption" and that there will now be pride and respect in this part of the country’s history.

"I firmly believe these people are due respect and in every way that I can show respect deserve and that it is proper to show respect I most certainly will," the president said. "I think that is the will of the people of Ireland also."

Mythology of all-Protestant army

McAleese said that when she was growing up in Northern Ireland it was part of the mythology that those who took part in the war were all Protestant and unionist.

"Of the 50,000 from this island who died, 30,000 of them were from south of the border," she said. "That is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands who actually took part in that war and who came home with their woundedness and with their rawness and with their hurt and with their experiences — some of them to be locked in and never expressed."

Many families made poignant pilgrimages to pay their respect to relatives in Belgian and French war cemeteries for the first time this year.

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