Dozens of Ireland’s World War II veterans turned out to greet Princess Anne tonight on her last official engagement in the country.
Anne spoke with each of the elderly Army men and women at a reception at Dublin’s Leopardstown Park Hospital to highlight the UK Big Lottery Fund’s scheme to allow heroes to return to the battlefields.
Frank Robinson, chairman of the Royal British Legion in Ireland, said there was now far more recognition of the people who had fought in the world wars.
Twelve Irish war survivors from Dublin, Galway, Tipperary, Cork and Waterford have already travelled back to the areas they fought in under the scheme.
Mr Robinson said: “There is now a growing acceptance in this country of the honourable part played by these men and women who served in the British forces during World War II and we are grateful for that understanding.
“The liberation of Europe, which began on June 6, 1944, was the foundation stone on which the united Europe in which we live and work was built.”
Jack Allshire from Mallow in Cork, who disguised his age and joined the British Army on St Patrick's Day 1940 at the age of 15, was a veteran of the D-Day landings in France.
The 81-year-old said the Princess had asked him about his experiences.
He said: “I told her it was an experience but we are not heroes, the ones down below were heroes.”
Mr Allshire added: “After the war you hope to forget what happened, then we were invited to the 40th anniversary and I thought I might as well go.”
Mr Allshire, who joined the second battalion of the Royal Ulster Regiment, said when he returned on the 40th anniversary to Sword Beach where he had landed, the place looked completely different.
“I enjoyed every time I went back but I didn’t see many of the old soldiers,” he added.
In the first round of grants under the heroes return scheme €8,865 was awarded to allow the war heroes and their spouses, or carers, to return to the battlefields.
The funding allows €450 for a veteran, or €790 for two people, to travel to north and western Europe.
Chris Anderson of the UK’s Big Lottery fund said: “We are working closely with the Royal British Legion in Dublin to ensure Irish veterans avail of the scheme.
“The Royal British Legion is trying to encourage veterans to avail of the funding during the 60th anniversary of World War II which will continue until next July.”
The organisation estimates there are about 5,000 veterans in Ireland and it was believed between 150,000 and 200,000 Irish people were involved in the wars.
Brother Columbanus Deegan, who also met the Princess Royal, said he had been back for the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of the end of World War II.
Brother Deegan said he was also travelling to a liberation celebration in Holland next week, which he had taken part in 60 years ago.
The Franciscan Brother from Waterford said: “I would not have been able to do it myself without the funding.
“I only realised the extent of Nazism when I saw the horrible camps and saw how brutal some of the Nazis were,” Brother Deegan said.
The 80-year-old said the Irish men and women who joined the British Army during the wars had been “airbrushed out of history” but this had changed over the last decade.
He said the “futility” of the war had led him to join the Franciscan Order.