Sombre remembrance of the war dead in the hush of Islandbridge

 

The laying of wreaths by President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth at the War Memorial Gardens conveyed more than any words could, writes MARY FITZGERALD

THE SILENCE that accompanied the laying of wreaths – one poppy, one laurel – by a British queen and an Irish president at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens yesterday conveyed more than any number of words.

In the hushed surroundings of the Sir Edwin Lutyens-designed gardens, whose fortunes – a little like the relationship between Ireland and Britain – have ebbed and flowed over time, Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese honoured the Irish who died in the first World War.

The story of how almost 50,000 Irishmen perished in the trenches of that war had, until quite recently, suffered something of a blotting out in the annals of Irish history. But their memory lived on in yesterday’s sombre commemoration, which stood as testament to the efforts of Mrs McAleese and many others determined to ensure that the sacrifice of Ireland’s war dead be remembered.

The ceremony under overcast skies echoed another landmark moment in 1998 when the Queen and Mrs McAleese unveiled a tower on the site of the 1917 battle of Messines Ridge in memory of the Irish who had gone to war under the Union flag and never came back. That was the first public event undertaken jointly by an Irish and British head of state.

As the Queen entered the gardens accompanied by Mrs McAleese at about noon yesterday, her eyes were drawn towards the altar-like granite structure referred to as the War Stone, which is engraved with the words: “Their Name Liveth for Evermore.”

She later viewed the nine-metre Guillemont Ginchy cross, which takes its name from two towns captured by the 16th Irish Division during the Battle of the Somme. The wall behind the cross is inscribed with the following: “I ndíl-chuimhne ar 49,400 Éireannach do thuir sa Chogadh Mhór 1914-1918 – To the memory of 49,400 Irish men who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-18”.

Opening the ceremony, the officer in charge of the cadet guard of honour announced the Queen’s name in Irish – “Banríon Eilís a Dó” – to the more than 500 attendees assembled along neat rows of garden chairs. A strong breeze buffeted a large Tricolour that stood at half-mast. Behind it, the Union flag flew alongside the three divisional flags of the British Legion and the light-blue standard of the United Nations.

Those present included politicians from north and south of the Border, Army veterans, church leaders, senior judges, foreign ambassadors, representatives of the Orange Order and leaders of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The mayors of Messines and nearby Heuvelland were also in attendance.

All stood to attention as a Defence Forces band played God Save the Queen, with many attendees singing along. Later, as the Queen and then President McAleese placed their wreaths before stepping back and bowing, the only sound was the drone of an Army helicopter circling overhead and the clicking of scores of camera shutters.

A minute’s silence was then observed, broken by a muffled drum roll, followed by a Defence Forces piper playing the Thomas More air Oft in the Stilly Night. As the Last Post was sounded, some attendees dabbed at their eyes. The Tricolour was then raised to full mast, accompanied by a drum roll. The reveille followed, segueing into Amhrán na bhFiann, which several present sang with gusto.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were then escorted from the cenotaph to view the Guillemont Ginchy cross and illuminated manuscripts, created by stained-glass artist Harry Clarke, containing the names of all the soldiers commemorated.

The Queen greeted several of those present, including Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, Alliance Party leader David Ford and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

As the Queen and the President were making their way out, Mrs McAleese spotted Kevin Myers in the line and said to the Queen: “This is the journalist who kept the flame of this place alive for so many years. He fought the good battle and, like so many good battles, it was worth fighting.”

Myers regularly wrote in The Irish Timesabout the heroism of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the 10th and 16th Irish divisions in the Great War. When the Queen nodded approvingly in his direction, he blurted out “Your Majesty”.

Speaking afterwards to RTÉ, he said: “The reaction has been even more moving and touching than I had expected and I had expected to be moved and touched by today’s events. There is a simplicity here and an honesty and an integrity which stand alone . . . Words are not being uttered but they do not need to be uttered. The spirit is there, it is within the occasion and it is visible in the goodwill, palpable in the air, and I think words are not necessary on an occasion like this but both peoples have been enhanced by what has happened here today.”