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Dublin Report Short steps on the long road to reconciliation

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

On my living room wall is the photograph of two brothers. They are in uniform. One has four chevrons on his left sleeve, the second only one. They emigrated from County Roscommon to the United States to build new lives. They were not there very long when they were shipped back to Europe, to France, in fact. They were two of thousands who were then "Over there" whether they liked it or not.

The two men were my uncles. The uniforms they wear are American. It was World War I. And they were just two Irishmen among thousands who fought in what is rather misleadingly termed the Great War.

Few wars, as those who fought will tell you, are "great." All wars are brutal and savage. But that is what it is called now and that is how we will have to accept it.

In a small town in Belgium called Messines, stands a round tower, modeled after the many that dot the Irish countryside. Here, most were built in the most peaceful of places from the eighth century on to protect valuable artifacts within Irish monasteries against the marauding Vikings and to store food in times of siege.

They owed their origin to war just as the modern round tower in Messines also pays homage to the victims of war. A small Irish community is flourishing in the little known Belgian village. There is now even an Irish bar, called, appropriately enough, the Tower. It seems that the Irish people who once exported Christianity and monastic settlements to Europe now export public houses.

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Two years ago, the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stood in Messines along with Queen Elizabeth and King Albert of Belgium to inaugurate the Island of Ireland Peace Park, as the small site, including the round tower, is called.

It is a memorial to the thousands of Irish soldiers who fought with the Allies in World War I. The majority, of course, were members of the British Army, serving soldiers in the great regiments like the Dublin Fusiliers, the Munster Rifles, the Connaught Rangers and, of course, the Royal Enniskillens.

The voluntary workers who constructed the park were from communities north and south of the Irish border. That was the intention of the two politicians who conceived the idea of building the memorial, Donegal’s Paddy Harte and Glenn Barr, once a loyalist activist.

The project was heralded with a loud fanfare of publicity and was widely hailed as a turning point not alone in cross-border relations. It was also seen as a significant attempt to thaw out part of the frosty historical legacy between Britain and Ireland.

Part of that legacy was due to the fact that Irish republicans won the battle during World War I against conscription into the British forces. In fact, it was the drive to conscript the Irish into those forces that pushed many Irish people into the republican camp during the War of Independence.

The campaign was highlighted by a huge banner handing outside Liberty Hall, headquarters of the Irish trade union movement and James Connolly’s Citizen Army, leading up to 1916. The banner spelled a clear message.

"We fight for neither King nor Kaiser," it proclaimed. The plain people of Ireland wished to remain decidedly neutral. They saw the Great War for what it was: essentially a fight to the death between two powerful nations, mainly for colonial reasons.

Yet there were other Irish people who held different views. There were the men serving in the British Army long before the outbreak of World War I. Some had even experienced service during the Boer War in South Africa. Generally, their fathers, whether they hailed from Cork and Kerry, as man did, or Galway or Dublin, had fought in the same army.

It was a longstanding tradition, especially for the soldiers of the Dublin Fusiliers, which was one of the most combat trained of all of the British regiments.

There were others too, like John Redmond, leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, heir to Charles Stewart Parnell. Redmond firmly believed that loyalty to the British Crown in its greatest time of peril would be rewarded with the grant of the long sought goal of Home Rule.

By no means was he alone in his thinking. Another who shared that view was the famed poet Francis Ledwidge, who left a reasonably humble farm in County Meath to meet his death in the heat of battle. By then, he had contributed some of the finest poetry written during, and about, the war he was fighting.

He could just as well have been a republican volunteer in 1916 and the subsequent War of Independence. He toyed with the idea for quite some time before he finally donned the khaki and "took the shilling," as they described it in those times.

The shillings were important, of course. Many a poor family throughout the island depended on the money sent back by husbands and sons who served the king and empire. Many of the mothers of such families spat at Irish Volunteers as they were led away to jail after 1916 because they regarded them as traitors.

Generally, the Irish fought for the British because of tradition, necessity or, in a minority of cases, because they genuinely agreed with John Redmond’s benevolent view of Her Majesty’s government: that it would grant Home Rule with the successful completion of the war.

Mistaken though they might have been, ill led as many were, afflicted by the necessities of life as most definitely were, they were, nevertheless, Irishmen.

The memorial park at Messines has been neglected since it was opened. Maintenance has been poor.

Now the Irish government has stepped in to assume responsibility for the site.

Harte who is reported to be "over the moon" with the decision, claims: "This is absolute recognition by the Irish government, Irish politicians and the Irish people of the soldiers who left our shores in 1914."

Barr, on the other hand, emphasizes that one of the main aims is to ensure that the park is also about bringing young people of different traditions, or no traditions at all, together.

He has organized a group of young people to travel to Messines this week to work on the conversion of a building into a new "School of Peace and Reconciliation." It will organize seminars on conflict resolution, hopefully including people from the Balkans and Eastern Europe as well as Ireland.

In the meantime, here at home the War Memorial, dedicated to the memory of all those who fought in the British Army, based near the Phoenix Park at Islandbridge, is flourishing as never before.

And — this is the important part — a new museum has been formed in Dublin to collect photographs, artifacts, and all sorts of memorabilia of those who fought in World War I.

Naturally, at this stage, the emphasis is on the British end. However, the organizers are also anxious to access details concerning the Irish who also fought in the U.S armed forces at that time.

Interested readers should note that the contact address is the Secretary, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, c/o the Dublin Civic Museum, 58 South William St., Dublin 2. The e-mail address is rdfa@eircom.net.

Perhaps it is high time that the Wild Geese who "spread their wing o’er every wave" should be honored, generations ago though it may be, since they died. It may represent only a baby step down a long road of reconciliation, but all such journeys begin with one such short step.

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