‘Heroic dead of Ireland’ recalled at Somme commemoration

President and Taoiseach attend State event to remember those who died in WW1 battle

 

The words of Marshal Ferdinand Foch first uttered in the pages of The Irish Times echoed around Islandbridge as Ireland remembered those who died in the Battle of the Somme.

Foch, the Allied supreme commander in the first World War, paid tribute in November 1928 to the Irishmen who fought and died in France.

The Irish State was busy then constructing an alternative narrative which sought to write out the contribution of those Irishmen who had served in British uniforms.

Foch said: “The heroic dead of Ireland have every right to the homage of the living for they proved in some of the heaviest fighting of the world war that the unconquerable spirit of the Irish race - the spirit that has placed them among the world’s greatest soldiers - still lives and is stronger than ever it was. Never once did the Irish fail me in those terrible days.”

The words were recounted by Irish army officer Captain Ciara Gubbins at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens.

A visible reminder from the battlefield was placed at the centre of commemorations. The wooden Ginchy Cross made a rare public outing. This cross was constructed from the beams of a demolished farmhouse in Ginchy, one of two Somme villages liberated by the 16th (Irish) Division.

It stood forlorn in a field until 1926 and was replaced by the granite cross at Guillemont.

Copies of the eight volume Irish National War Memorial Records were laid on the Stone of Remembrance. These remember 49,400 Irishmen or those who fought in Irish regiments who died in the war. The true figure of Irish war dead may never be known though it is likely to be more than 40,000.

This was the first time that the Somme commemoration was organised by the Taoiseach’s office. Previously, it had been organised by the Royal British Legion.

‘Gratitude’

The head chaplain of the defence forces Fr Seamus Madigan spoke of how those Irishmen who died in the Battle of the Somme should be remembered with “sorrow and gratitude” and he acknowledged in the past this had not been the case. “It is never too late to say thanks to honour their sacrifice.”

The flags of the eight combatant nations in the Somme and the flags of the three Irish divisions, the 10th (Irish), the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) were on display.

Wreaths were laid by the ambassadors on behalf of the countries involved though some like the Republic, were not even nations in 1916. The wreaths came from Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Canada.

President Michael D Higgins laid a wreath on behalf of the Irish people, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers on the part of the British government and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Among those in attendance were ministers Frances Fitzgerald, Heather Humphreys, Leo Varadkar and Charlie Flanagan; two former presidents - Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson; the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mike Nesbitt and the Lord Mayors of Dublin and Belfast.

No man’s land

Many relatives also attended including Leonard Quigg, the great-nephew of Sergeant Robert Quigg who won the Victoria Cross posthumously on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Quigg won his for bringing seven injured men back from no man’s land.

A statue to Quigg was unveiled in his home town of Bushmills on June 28th by Queen Elizabeth II. He will be one of three Somme winners of the Victoria Cross to have paving stones unveiled in their memory at Glasnevin Cemetery on Saturday afternoon.

Captain Stephen O’Byrne, who was one of 200 members of the defence forces participating in the ceremony. His great-great uncle was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.