Irish Air Corps captain: Queen's visit 'very symbolic'

Irish Air Corps captain: Queen's visit 'very symbolic'

Tens of thousands of Irishmen who gave their lives fighting for Britain during the First World War were honoured by the Queen at a Dublin commemoration steeped in symbolism.

An Irish Air Corp captain has called the gesture "very symbolic."

Captain Ed Hollingsworth exemplified the co-operation that now exists between British and Irish forces.

She laid a poppy wreath at the Irish National War Memorial Garden at Islandbridge in tribute to the almost 50,000 soldiers, Protestant and Catholic alike, who died on foreign fields almost a century ago as the debate over Irish independence raged back home.

Captain Hollingsworth, who recently piloted a jet that rescued a British family from Tripoli during the uprising in Libya, said: "Today is very symbolic.

“A wonderful historic occasion and I am proud to be a part of it and representing the Defence Forces,” said the 36-year-old.

Accompanied by President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin, the Queen and Prince Philip stood for a minute’s silence before a lone Irish Army piper stepped forward to play a poignant Scottish lament to the fallen followed by a trumpeting of the Last Post.

It was another moment rich in historic significance for a state which in the decades after partition in 1921 struggled with its Great War legacy, with many veterans scared to openly admit they fought for the King.

Coming a day after the royal couple visited the garden dedicated to those who fought against the British in the battle for Irish freedom, the imagery was all the stronger.

As at yesterday’s commemoration, God Save the Queen rang out to mark her Majesty’s arrival with the Irish national anthem Amhrán na bhFíann played as she and Mrs McAleese departed.

And if the presence of the Queen was groundbreaking, the make-up of the invited crowd also provided some striking images.

Invites for former loyalist paramilitary prisoners proved contentious in the lead-up to the event and the sight of Ulster Defence Association (UDA) chief Jackie McDonald shaking hands with the Irish President and her husband, with the royal couple only feet away, would certainly have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

Elsewhere in the crowd the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, mingled among Orangemen while nationalist and unionist politicians from Northern Ireland chatted with each other and counterparts from the south.

But this was an event for the military and both Irish and British veterans sat close by serving personnel from both states. Among them was pensioner Billy Murphy, a 71-year-old Cork man who served in the British Royal Marines.

“It’s fantastic that the Queen’s here – we can all now live in peace and go forward from here,” he said.

“We’ve still got servicemen dying overseas so it was good for her to come here and pay her respects.”

At the other end of the age spectrum was 18-year-old Irish Army recruit Katie Berry from Westmeath.

“It was a shock when I was told I was coming here, I couldn’t believe it at the start and it’s such an experience, something I’ll never forget,” she said.

Cardinal Brady said the diversity of guests was telling.

“When you look around at people representing so many different strata of our society, I found it a very moving ceremony,” he said.

“I hope it will lead to other steps towards the final goal of reconciliation and healing of the hurts of the past.

“It emphasises the need that we depend on each other in life for so many things.”

The head of the Orange Order, Grand Master Eddie Stevenson, put it rather more forthrightly.

“I think the two countries are maybe behaving like grown up people now and have a proper relationship with each other,” he said.

The Islandbridge gardens were created by the renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed Britain’s best known war memorial, the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

The ceremony built on the symbolic reconciliation in 1998 when the Queen and the President unveiled a tower on the site of the battle of Messines Ridge in memory of the Irish dead of the First World War, and to inaugurate the Island of Ireland Peace Park.

It was the first public event undertaken by an Irish and British head of state.

Islandbridge gardens contain a War Stone inscribed “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”, and the 30ft Guillemont Ginchy Cross, the wall behind which bears the words in the Irish and English languages: “I ndil-chuimhne are 49,400 Eireannach do thuir sa Chogadh Mhor 1914-1918 – To the memory of 49,400 Irish men who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-18”.

Following the wreath-laying, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were shown illuminated manuscripts, created by stained glass artist Harry Clarke, in the granite room of the memorial containing the names of all the soldiers commemorated.

They then met and chatted with a number of guests before departing for their next engagement.

The North's First Minister Peter Robinson said the event was very important but questioned why it had taken so long to happen.

“I suppose ’symbolic’ and ’historic’ are words that have been used almost on a weekly basis over the last number of years but like so many of the others, after the event has occurred you are left wondering why it couldn’t have happened much earlier and it seems so normal and natural,” said the Democratic Unionist leader.

“It was a very important event, a very important point in British and Irish history and I think you’ve seen with the representative nature of those who were present that this is something that has gone down well in most if not all sections of our community.”

But there were some dissenting voices and elsewhere in Dublin, at Kilmainham Gaol, a small group of republicans held a protest against the presence of the Queen and members of the UDA to coincide with the Islandbridge ceremony.

However, Mr McDonald said it was important the people he represented were acknowledged.

“I am very proud for the people we represent, the ex-combatants, the loyalist ex-prisoners, ones who made this possible, who supported us through the transition from where we were to where we are and will support us to where we need to be,” he said.

Many politicians were in attendance including Irish Environment Minister Phil Hogan and Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

From north of the border Mr Robinson was joined by leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Tom Elliott, the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie and David Ford of the Alliance Party.

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein veteran Martin McGuinness declined an invitation to attend the memorial service.

Mr Robinson said he was disappointed: “It would have been an excellent opportunity to show respect for traditions that have otherwise not been shown that respect in the past,” he said.

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