Irish Protestant and Catholic church leaders hold joint service in the Somme

‘The Somme has somehow become a river of Ulster,’ said Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Richard Clarke

 Dignitaries lay wreaths during a service to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial on July 1st, 2016 in Thiepval, France. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/Getty Images

Dignitaries lay wreaths during a service to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial on July 1st, 2016 in Thiepval, France. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/Getty Images

 

The Somme has somehow become a river of Ulster, a centenary commemorative service was told in France Friday.

In an address at the Ulster Tower, near Thiepval in France, Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Richard Clarke recalled the final scene from Frank McGuinness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme.

“The young Ulster soldiers, about to go ‘over the top’ on the morning of 1st July 1916, start discussing the rival merits of the rivers of Ulster - the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann,” he said.

Realising they are standing near another river, the River Somme, “the discussion becomes more excited and excitable. One of the soldiers calls out that now the Somme is the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann.

“This river, the Somme, is now theirs. The Somme has somehow become a river of Ulster,” the Archbishop said.

“Few images could more perfectly encapsulate that connectedness between the Somme and Ulster. For many people of that province, the Somme and Ulster have, for 100 years, belonged together in the imagination of succeeding generations. This connectedness is something we celebrate today,” he said.

He recalled how just a week ago he and the Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin “stood here, at this Ulster Tower, with a group of young people from all parts of Ireland, and representing both our Christian traditions - traditions which for so long have seen themselves as apart, even at enmity with one another.

“We prayed, we kept silence, and we reflected, all in the sombre realisation that many of those who had died here at the Somme were of an age with the young people who were part of our group.”

The soldiers who died at the Somme “were now part of us, but we would do them no honour if we saw their young lives and early tragic deaths only as sad or even sacred history”.

A week ago, “we prayed in this place for true peace, God’s peace in our lives and for our world. And this must surely also be at the heart of our praying today”, he said.

Other Irish church leaders who took part in the commemorative service included Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church Rev Dr Frank Sellar, and President of the Methodist Church Rev Bill Mullally

In a joint statement the four Church leaders jointly called for Christians of all traditions in Ireland to pray for peace in these challenging times.

They said: “Let us put our faith into action - love our neighbours, reach out to the stranger, care for the vulnerable, build community and be agents for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.”