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Wednesday 24 May 2017

Unity comes from respecting different traditions - not trying to obliterate them

Soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles pictured during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme Photo: Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company / IWM via Getty Images
Soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles pictured during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme Photo: Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company / IWM via Getty Images

Leo Varadkar

On Friday, July 1, I was honoured to lay a wreath at the traditional ceremony at the Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall, and pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Irish, from both parts of the island, who fought and died at the Somme.

Exactly 100 years on, it is still hard to comprehend the incredible carnage of that period, when one million people were killed, lost, or wounded over 141 days of bitter fighting. At Thiepval there is a great memorial inscribed with the names of more than 72,000 men who have no known grave.

A soldier stands among graves lit up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme at the Thiepval memorial to the missing Photo: Gareth Fuller / Pool / Getty Images
A soldier stands among graves lit up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme at the Thiepval memorial to the missing Photo: Gareth Fuller / Pool / Getty Images

Today at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin, ceremonies will be held to remember those who died. More than 3,500 from all parts of this island were killed at the Somme.

In recent years there have been various attempts to rehabilitate the Battle of the Somme. I will leave those debates to historians.

But it is hard to read the first-hand accounts, to look at the enormous casualty figures, and to consider that so many lives were squandered for negligible gains, without coming to a different conclusion.

As the message on one gravestone at the Somme reads: "If this is victory, then let God stop all wars."

The story of the Somme is part of the shared history of this island. So much has been rightly written about the 36th Ulster Division, the 16th Irish Division, and the many Irish soldiers in other regiments who fought and died for a range of motives.

It is shameful that for so many years, we in the Republic ignored this part of our history - because it was uncomfortable, or because it didn't fit with a traditional nationalist narrative.

It is right to reclaim it, because a genuine republic should have the confidence to embrace complexity, rather than enforce simplicity.

In these days of Brexit, and uncertainty about the future relationship between North and South, it is worth remembering that real unity comes from respecting different traditions and values, not trying to obliterate them. I see no contradiction in honouring the men and women of the 1916 Rising in this centenary year, and paying tribute to those who fought at the Somme, or elsewhere in the First World War. As an Irishman, and as a minister, I am proud to do both.

In Belfast and Thiepval last week, and in Dublin this weekend, people of different traditions and outlooks have come together to remember the sacrifice made by their forefathers. In remembering our shared past, we can deepen our mutual understanding and our ability to work together, to the benefit of all.

People are often reluctant to commemorate the First World War. But it is precisely because the First World War was such a global tragedy that we need to remember it. Facing our past, and learning from it, is the best way of honouring the value of human life.

Some of our most iconic works of literature were inspired by the Somme. JRR Tolkien acknowledged that the Dead Marshes in 'The Lord of the Rings', with dead bodies floating in the mud, was inspired by his experiences after the Somme.

One hundred years on we remember war, so that we can pay homage to peace.

The heavy losses sustained over 141 days of bloody fighting at the Somme affected individuals, families and communities all across Ireland. It is right to remember all those who fought, all those who died, and the legacy they left behind. The story of the Somme is part of the story of Ireland.

The Somme also has a broader lesson, especially at a time when some are questioning the purpose of the European project, and are perhaps complacent about the peace that it helped to bring and secure. In the words of the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon -

Have you forgotten yet?

Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

A poignant entreaty from a time in our common past, still relevant today.

Irish Independent

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