Adam, Ahern, Black, Bolger, Brennan, Breslin — the names read like poetry under the Menin Gate. Molloy, Moran, Morgen, Mulvihill, Murphy, Murray — all buried in unknown graves in Flanders soil.
All denied a hero’s memory. Even Major Willie Redmond, who like the rest fought for the rights of small nations and, shattered by the execution of the Easter Rising leaders, asked not to be buried in a British grave when he died on a June day in 1917.
He, like all 50,000 Irish dead, denied. All 50,000 officially forgotten for well nigh a century. Part of the ambiguity of Irish history: they left as warriors and those who returned in 1918 were vilified as traitors.
That awful ambiguity was washed away yesterday when the Taoiseach paid the respects of an Irish nation, laying winners’ wreaths at the graves of the known and unknown.
The Burlaces, father and his 16-year-old son, killed fighting with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the three McDonnell brothers, the two Ross brothers — all missing, their names inscribed on stone above the Menin Gate. All were until yesterday just part of the Commonwealth soldiers who were killed around Ypres in Belgium in 1917.
“I mean the simple soldier man, Who, when the Great War first began, Just died, stone dead, From lumps of lead, in mire.” William Orpen, war artist.
O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Neill, Ormsby, O’Rourke, Walker, Walsh, Waters, Wolfe. And the drummers, Pitman and Wright. Irish Guards all.
A short distance away is the beautifully built Round Tower, surrounded by the Island of Ireland Peace Park. But an unfinished acknowledgment of the bones strewn in the fields around where some of the most savage fighting of that first World War took place, where soldiers, British and Irish died as cannon fodder.
Willie Redmond, of the Royal Irish Regiment, died, 56 years of age, one of the first out of the trenches on Jun 7, leading his men of the 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, in the great attack on the Messines Ridge. His lone grave tended by locals who have refused attempts to move it, his name remembered over the door of Redmond’s pub in the nearby village of Locre. The statue of Our Lady placed on his lone grave by a nun at the time stands sentinel over the stone cross.
Now added to the visitors book at his grave, a long overdue acknowledgement:
“To honour a soldier who lived and died for his beliefs, and whose faith in the power of unity still resonates powerfully,” Enda Kenny, Taoiseach. Dec 2013.
“It is an honour to visit with the Irish PM to commemorate all those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom — including this historic site,” David Cameron. Dec 2013.
This was perhaps an echo of what the Wexford nationalist, Catholic and fighter for home rule, Irish unity and land rights had in mind when he talked about a bridge between north and south, built over his soldiers graves being a fine memorial — “no one could help doing so when one finds that the two sections from Ireland are actually side by side holding the trenches”.
Standing there in the biting cold the Taoiseach had time to reflect: “I thought it was symbolically very important. The thought crossed my mind standing at the grave of Willie Redmond: that was why we have a European Union and why I’m attending a European Council.
“I think it was the first time that an Irish Taoiseach actually had the opportunity to pay tribute to British soldiers and Irish soldiers who fought in World War I. So for me, personally, this was something very important, I have to say. And it was also a great privilege being able to lay a wreath on behalf of the Irish people at the grave of Willie Redmond.”
The last word should go to another Irish MP, one of the five who volunteered thinking it would strengthen the cause of Home Rule: “So here, while the mad guns curse overhead, And tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor, Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead, Died not for flag, nor king, nor emperor, But for a dream born into a herdsman’s shed, And for the secret scripture of the poor,” Tom Kettle 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
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