At the beginning of this year we considered how we might make a joint contribution to the centenary commemorations which would build our friendship and symbolise our commitment to reconciliation.
We therefore chose to be together in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, on the anniversary of the 1916 Rising and to stand side by side at the Ulster Tower in France last Friday, July 1st. We find no contradiction there.
We also decided to lead a pilgrimage with young people of different traditions and outlooks from across the island of Ireland to explore our shared story and the ways in which our different traditions have chosen to approach these significant anniversaries.
From Glasnevin to Thiepval, from Guillemont to Passchendaele, we visited significant places that are linked to both the Easter Rising and the first World War. We were particularly interested in seeing the site of the Battle of the Somme and memorials in France and Belgium linked to the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division.
In a poignant moment at the Menin Gate in Ypres, we had the honour of laying a peace wreath of white flowers during the Last Post Ceremony.
We realise that members of our traditions tend to simply choose one single narrative about this centenary year and thereby lose the richness and completeness of understanding other perspectives.
Perhaps this generation will be the one to open up the broader story that has not been suitably articulated and recognised until now.
We hope that our centenary pilgrimage has given leadership to our congregations by engaging together with aspects of our history which perhaps we have not always been comfortable in exploring jointly in the past.
There is a much greater understanding now, than there was even 50 years ago, of the complexity of our shared story which isn’t capable of neat compartmentalisation.
We spoke together about Tom Kettle, the Irish nationalist, sympathetic to what was happening in Ireland yet believing it was his duty to go and fight in Europe. With thousands of others, he died at the Somme in September 1916.
From the stretcher-bearers of the 36th Ulster Division who carried the body of Irish nationalist Willie Redmond from the battlefield to the young priest, Fr Donal O'Sullivan, who was fatally wounded at the Somme while giving the Last Rites to a wounded soldier on the battlefield – we miss a lot by not acknowledging the entanglement of the narrative.
Reading the names on the first World War gravestones and on the memorial walls, it is clear that many thousands of Protestants and Catholics died side by side during that horrific war. It is fitting, then that we should remember them together.
Many Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics went to war showing great courage and conviction. We heard stories of their heroism and personal sacrifice. We also noticed the reactions of our young pilgrims as they realised many of the young men who died at the Somme and elsewhere were about the same age as they were – or even younger. This sobering thought changed our whole perspective and highlighted for all of us the futility and waste of life and opportunity that is war.
Among the most memorable moments from our pilgrimage were the times of shared prayer and our recital with young people of the Peace Pledge at the Island of Ireland Peace
“From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the first World War . . . We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour. As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness.
“From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.
“We affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace.”
Archbishop Eamon Martin is Catholic primate and Archbishop Richard Clarke is Church of Ireland primate. The Dublin Council of Churches is hosting a lecture on Making God-Sense of 1912-1922 a Century Later – Faith in a Different World by Rev Dr Johnston McMaster at the Lutherhaus, Adelaide Road, on Tuesday, July 12th, at 8pm