Flanders peace field project secures Unesco backing

Peacefield described by archbishop Tutu as jewel in the crown of centenary events

The round tower of the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders, several kilometres away from where the famous football game between British and German soldiers during the Christmas truce of 1914 took place. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

The round tower of the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders, several kilometres away from where the famous football game between British and German soldiers during the Christmas truce of 1914 took place. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

Writer, producer and humanist Don Mullan has no reason to feel particularly nostalgic about the passing of former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley.

A Derry-born child of the Troubles, Mullan’s teenage eyewitness account of Bloody Sunday in 1972 is acknowledged to have influenced the eventual establishment of the Saville inquiry.

However, speaking at NUI Galway a week ago, Mullan recalled a story that Dr Paisley told him almost six years ago about his childhood neighbour – a first World War veteran.

A young Ian, in short trousers, was regularly sent to take fresh eggs to the old man by his mother.

The war veteran described to the boy how he had watched the famous football game between British and German soldiers during the Christmas truce of 1914.

A great crowd had turned out, and the Germans won “3-2”, Paisley recalled, but the participants had been “severely rebuked afterwards on both sides”.

Candles on the trenches

For Mullan, the memory was invaluable as he had been researching the event that very same year. In 2008, he had travelled to the match’s location between Belgian town of Messines and Ploegsteert Wood, several kilometres away from the Island of Ireland Peace Park and round tower.

It was there that, as darkness drew in on Christmas Eve 1914, British soldiers first heard the sound of carols and then caught sight of the hundreds of candles and miniature Christmas trees clamped on top of the trenches which had been dispatched to cheer German forces.

Slow progress

“Young men who believed they were fighting monsters on the other side, because of all the propaganda, were surprised to find they were meeting fellow human beings,”Mullan says.

“The music drew them out of the trenches. Beer, wine and cognac were shared, and they even helped to bury each other’s dead.”

Yet a small wooden cross and accompanying information panel was all Mullan could find to mark the football game.

He established that it was one of several such games – along with a cycle race – and that members of the battalion of the Irish Fusiliers were among those who participated.

He also learned that there was a smaller Western Front truce between French and German soldiers in December 1915.

Working with the mayor of Messines, Mullan has been trying for five years to raise funds for a project to create a Flanders “peace field”, where young people from all over Europe can gather to play sport and reflect on the lessons to be learned from that brief respite.

Though progress has been frustratingly slow, he admits, he has enlisted backing from South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, who described it as a jewel in the crown of first World War centenary events, and the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ peace and reconciliation fund.

He hopes that various Northern politicians, albeit bogged down in the political impasse at home, may travel to Flanders to view the location.

“Maybe US diplomat Richard Haass should fly them all to Messines, as there’s nothing quite like the rows of hundreds of mass graves to concentrate minds,” he says.

Significantly, Mullan has also secured the support of Unesco through its network of academics chairing its global youth programme.

Prof Pat Dolan, who invited Mullan to speak recently in Galway, holds a Unesco chair for children, youth and civic engagement at NUIG. “Messines was about young men’s participation in something highly unusual, and it highlights the fact that young people are always the first to take a positive step,”Prof Dolan says.

Dignity and hope

“All the research on Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, Haiti and other disasters shows that young people are the first to rush in to help.

 

“You look at events now and the concern about young unemployed people signing up for extreme organisations like Islamic State,”Prof Dolan says.

“But there are many young experiencing hardship who don’t choose to become radical and that needs to be facilitated.”

Mullan’s peace field project is about “celebrating the potential of youth”, Prof Dolan says, and giving the rising generation both “dignity and hope.”

It is “high time”, he adds, that “young people stopped getting such a negative press”.