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Remembrance: At last, Ireland honors her soldier sons

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — A new awareness of a forgotten part of Irish history — the tens of thousands who fought and died in the two world wars — is emerging as a legacy of the peace process. Next Wednesday, Nov. 1, Irish President Mary McAleese and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth will officially open a memorial in Messines in Flanders.

The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines has a round tower constructed of Irish stone by FAS builders as its centerpiece. With echoes of the famous Newgrange burial chamber in County Meath, the tower has been designed so the inside will be illuminated by the sun shining through its opening on the 11th hour of the 11th month every year — the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I in 1918.

The limestone was shipped out from a former workhouse in Mullingar. Other stone came from the remains of the army barracks in Tipperary burned down during Ireland’s Civil War, lending a special resonance with the marching song "It’s a Long Way from Tipperary."

The opening of the £1 million memorial 80 years after the guns fell silent has been made possible by Irish and British government financial backing and donations from both sides of the Irish border.

The idea for the memorial came from a cross-border visit to the war graves of the Somme and Flanders two years ago. Fine Gael’s Paddy Harte and former unionist politician Glen Barr held hands during the emotional service and pledged that people should come face to face with the tragedy of the war.

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A trust was set up to foster reconciliation and bring together people of all backgrounds to remember the 40,000 Irish people who died and were never fully recognized at home.

Attitudes change

Commemorating those Irish soldiers who died in World War I and II has always been a sensitive issue in Ireland, not least because most of them fought on the British side.

In World War I, many believed that supporting Britain in its hour of need would guarantee home rule. This, however, was not how events transpired. Complicating matters was the 1916 Rising. Subsequently, Irish people were more eager to commemorate those who struck a blow for freedom than those who fought with what many perceived as "the enemy." After all, there were those who thought, as the saying goes, that "England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity." The irony of this is that many people today believe that the fighters of 1916 were not honored as they should have been.

In World War II, 250,000 Irish people helped in the war effort, either fighting on the British side or working in British industry, including munitions factories. In many instances, it was a case of unemployed or immigrant Irish people taking advantage of an economic opportunity, but there were also those who felt they had to do their bit in the fight against Hitler.

Even the passing of time did not remove the stigma of having fought in the wars. Indeed, the outbreak of the Troubles in the North led to the already low-key Remembrance Sunday celebrations almost going underground. The red poppy symbol was not sold on the streets and it was only last year that some of a dwindling group of elderly veterans wore their medals openly to the main service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

The change of attitude is noticed at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, with more Irish people contacting them to try to trace relatives among the war dead, the details of how they were killed and where they are buried.

Press officer Peter Francis, whose family is from Cork, said the commission gets more than 40,000 calls a year. The database of the details of the 1.7 million dead in two world wars from 150 countries around the world was computerized three years ago and will go on the internet on Nov. 9.

"In the past, families searching for details of a casualty without exact knowledge found it very difficult," Francis said. "Now people will be able to search on the Internet site using keywords such as a town, a regiment or a surname and hopefully get the information they want."

He said the commission was noticing much greater interest from young people.

"I frequently give talks to schools and the person I always mention is an Irish boy who was the youngest known casualty of the First World War," he said. "He was only 14 and children will always relate to the story because of his age."

John Condon, a son of John and Mary Condon of Waterford, ran away from home in 1915 and lied about his age to join the Royal Irish regiment, then based in Clonmel. By the time his parents tracked him down, he was dead. He is buried in a war grave cemetery near Bruge in Belgium.

Sad stories

Tom Burke, chairman of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, is impatient with the slow pace of change toward the war dead and the veterans.

He has no relatives who were involved in the war but has been one of the leading organizers of an exhibition in Dublin’s Civic Museum that features some of the British regiments in which Irishmen served.

"There are terribly, terribly sad stories and if we are to move to the millennium, we must be comfortable with our past and take off the blinkers and welcome everybody home as part of the nation," Burke said. "There should be no reason for people to be ashamed anymore."

When he was writing up some of the accounts of relatives for the exhibition, the harrowing stories often forced him to stop as the tears flowed.

"Many of the stories are unbelievably tragic," he said. "I used to sit at the computer compiling the exhibition and physically break down with the emotion. I would switch it off and leave it for a day or so before I felt able to come back to it. They were just so sad and the biggest tragedy of all was the ambivalence shown to them when they came home.

"The pace of change is too slow. I fear my grandchildren may be well dead and gone before everyone fully accepts each other’s traditions and histories on this island. The issue is not a black and white, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist one. Like everything, there are shades of gray. We are only just discovering this with 1798. We now know Presbyterians fought for democracy and civil rights then while Catholic militia fought to suppress them.

"It is the same with the wars of this century. The people just didn’t talk about it. You would remember the anniversary of the death of a member of the family in a tragedy and you could be accused of ignorance if you forgot. But people could not forget — they had never been told."

Few families untouched

Few Irish families were untouched. At the beginning of World War I, 210,000 were serving with British regiments and another 145,000 volunteered. Many more Irish joined the forces from the U.S., France, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Burke’s interest started when he grew up in Killester in Dublin near an ex-servicemen’s’ estate. "They were lovely men and I just thought it was so wrong to ignore them," he said.

Burke is discovering new stories all the time about how the virtual exclusion of the war veterans and the huge death toll affected many families.

Next month, he will fulfill a promise a lay a wreath at two graves in a cemetery near Messines.

"If it kills me, I will do this for an old man from Ballyfermot," he said. "He had a father and two uncles in the Dublin Fusiliers. His lifelong ambition was to lay a wreath at his two uncles’ graves, but he died while walking in Dublin docks last August. I am going to do it for him now. Somebody has to."

Burke also noted that an emotional woman had recently phoned him from Tipperary to say that her 97-year-old father had died. In his final years he had become melancholic about a younger brother who had died in France.

"He had been very depressed about how he had been forgotten and ignored and made a last wish that a member of the family go to the grave this year and lay a wreath," Burke said. "She was in tears trying to find out how she could trace the grave. Eighty years on this is the way it is still affecting people.

"For years and years people hid their medals in old biscuit tins and never spoke about it. It all faded into the fog of 1916 and everything that has happened since. . But now, finally, it is changing.

"I will never forget Paddy Harte and Glen Barr standing in the lashing rain holding hands and pledging to make people realize that many people died for noble reasons in the war that was supposed to end all wars. It was a very poignant moment in a very sad story."

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