Armistice Day: Remembering the past differently

The ‘doubly tragic’ Irish who fought in the first World War

At 11 o'clock today, weather permitting, the sun will illuminate the interior of the Peace Tower in the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in Belgium. It does so only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year. On Armistice Day.

A round tower about 110ft high (33.5m), it was built with stone from a former British army barracks in Tipperary and a workhouse near Mullingar. It houses bronze cubicles containing record books listing the known dead from Ireland in the first World War.

The peace park at Messines was the brainchild of former Fine Gael TD for Donegal Paddy Harte and Derry community leader and former UDA political adviser Glen Barr, together with the cross-Border Journey of Reconciliation Trust.

It was created in memory of the 69,947 young men from both main traditions in Ireland who were killed, wounded or missing (presumed dead) in the war.


The most conservative figure for the number of those young men confirmed dead is 35,000 (not including those from the island of Ireland who enlisted in England, Scotland, and Wales), while at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin's Islandbridge the figure given is 49,400.

Catholic soldiers

Over 140,500 men from Ireland volunteered to serve in the first World War. That was in addition to the 58,000 already serving. In both instances, the great majority, as with the island’s population, was from the Catholic, nationalist tradition.

It was at Messines that the 36th Ulster Division, drawn from the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force, and the 16th Irish Division, largely drawn from the Irish National Volunteers, fought side by side in June 1917 to win a major victory. It was why the site was chosen for a peace park.

Sixteen years ago, on November 11th, 1998, then president of Ireland Mary McAleese opened the Island of Ireland Peace Park accompanied by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain and King Albert II of Belgium.

In one of the most important speeches of her presidency McAleese recalled that day at Messines how: "Those whom we commemorate here were doubly tragic. They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. Their memory too fell victim to a war for independence at home in Ireland.

“In the history of conflict which has blighted my homeland for generations respect for the memory of one set of heroes was often at the expense of respect for the memory of the other.

“As former taoiseach Seán Lemass, himself a protagonist in the Irish people’s fight for independence, said 30 years ago – ‘In later years it was common – and I was also guilty in this respect – to question the motives of those who joined the new British armies at the outbreak of the war, but it must in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said, that they were motivated by the highest purpose.’ ”

Freedom vs flag

She noted, “They came from every corner of Ireland. Among them were Protestants, Catholics, unionists and nationalists, their differences transcended by a common commitment not to flag but to freedom.”

And she continued: “None of us has the power to change what is past but we do have the power to use today well to shape a better future. The Peace Park does not invite us to forget the past but to remember it differently.

“We are asked to look with sorrow and respect on the memory of our countrymen who died with such courage far from the common homeland they loved deeply. Their vitality, genius, youth and commitment was lost to Ireland.

In this generation we redeem their memory, acknowledging their sacrifice and the pain of those who loved them. We pray that just as this park has changed the landscape of Belgium, so too it will help to change the landscape of our memory.

“These too are Ireland’s children as those who fought for her independence are her children, and those who fought against each other in our country’s Civil War – and of course the dead of recent decades – their children’s children – who have not known the peace for which they yearned. To each let us give his or her acknowledged place among our island’s cherished dead.”

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent