Some in the crowd wept softly as Taoiseach Enda Kenny bowed his head in honour of Britain’s military dead at Enniskillen’s war memorial.
The tears were not for the significance of his presence, nor for the far off slaughter on the Western Front, but in remembrance of one of the most shocking moments of the atrocity- laden Troubles, when the IRA exploded their poppy day bomb on the same spot in 1987, leaving 12 people dead and another 60 injured.
The two-minute silence preceding the wreath-laying had only interrupted by birdsong — and the distant wail of an ambulance siren.
The birdsong, fittingly, echoed a reminder of humanity Irish soldiers had left to cling onto in the despair of the trenches — the siren a reminder of inhumanity delivered here 25 years ago.
The sky was dissolving from crisp autumnal sunshine into gloom-laden cloud cover as the first strains of the approaching marching band’s ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ began to envelope the diamond- shaped opening housing the war memorial.
As Mr Kenny took up position, an elderly woman standing near where the collapsing gable wall had caught so many of the dead between its falling masonry and the bomb blast this week 25 years ago said to her friend: “Who’s that?”
“Oh, he’s the prime minister of the South,” her companion replied.
“That’s nice,” the woman said, adding: “The South lost 50,000 in the First World War.”
With history so redolent in the chill November air, Mr Kenny was careful to walk a fine line during this first cross-border Remembrance Day journey by a Taoiseach. He sported neither a poppy, nor the customary ceremonial occasion nationalist green tie — instead Mr Kenny was neutral in blue. However, the lush green of the wreath he laid stood out markedly amid the blood red sea of poppies engulfing it, and its card bore the handwritten note “In remembrance from the Government of Ireland,” — surely, an assertion of all-island political legitimacy that would not be lost on hardline unionists.
The following service at Enniskillen’s Anglican cathedral — its arched ceiling festooned with British military standards and union flags — began with a lone Loyalist heckler contemptuously shouting “Sinn Féin/IRA!” and ended with a rousing version of ‘God Save The Queen’.
After the ceremony, Mr Kenny held a private meeting with some of the families of the victims of the 1987 bombing, and then became the first Taoiseach to visit a Royal British Legion hall.
There was a slight, but palpable, ripple of apprehension as Mr Kenny entered the small, crowded main room which was bedecked with regimental insignia and heavy with an atmosphere of the unknown.
Viscount Brookeborough, Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Fermanagh, whose forebears — according to Loyalist legend — signed the Ulster Covenant in their own blood, gave the Taoiseach the warmest of welcomes.
Rising from his seat at a trestle table emblazoned with poppy-covered napkins, Mr Kenny then delivered a stirring, impromptu speech touching on the interwoven commonality of the island’s two traditions, and which pointedly acknowledged how Britain’s Queen Elizabeth had bowed her head to the memorial for the revolutionary patriotic dead in Dublin.
And as he completed his words of conciliation and mutual-respect, the room joined Mr Kenny on their feet in a standing ovation.
Right up until the Armistice of the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918, stalemate suffocated and froze the Western Front.
At that same moment 94 years later, Mr Kenny achieved a small, but significantly totemic, triumph on the Northern Front.
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