'We shall not forget those who were stronger than lions in defending all we hold dear'
ONLY 24 hours earlier the sun had been splitting the granite stones of Collins Barracks in Dublin, but yesterday morning unrelenting rain fell steadily on the courtyard during the National Day of Commemoration ceremony.
This annual solemn event in honour of Irish people who died in past wars or in peacekeeping service, is usually held in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham but the main courtyard in that venue is undergoing some refurbishment (as are several State buildings in the run-up to Ireland taking over the presidency of the EU in 2013).
But Collins Barracks is a more than fittingly historic stage for this commemoration; built shortly after the Battle of the Boyne, it housed soldiers -- first British, then Free State Army and subsequently the Irish Defence Forces -- for three centuries, making it the oldest continuously occupied barracks in the world. In 1997, it was demilitarised and became the home of the National Museum of Ireland.
Yet despite the miserable weather, about 900 people attended the ceremony, including members of the Government, the judiciary, the clergy and retired military personnel from the Irish and British armies, as well as relatives of those who died in past wars and the 1916 Rising. Among those in the front row were Major General David O'Morchoe, chairman of the Royal British Legion, who escorted Queen Elizabeth at the war memorial in Islandbridge last year.
However, if the event organisers couldn't order up more of the warm sunshine that had bathed the capital the day before, then at least they were thoughtful enough to provide plastic poncho-style rain-macs for the guests as they took their seats.
Just after 11am, members of the Council of State arrived in procession, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Susan Denham; Nicholas Kearns, President of the High Court; the Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett; Professor Gerard Quinn of NUI Galway; the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Paddy Burke; and former Chief Justice Ronan Keane. Shortly afterwards, government ministers entered through the archway, and among them were Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore; Finance Minister Michael Noonan; Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter; Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin; Social Protection Minister Joan Burton; Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton; Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan; Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald; junior ministers Brian Hayes and Joe Costello; and Attorney General Maire Whelan.
Serendipitously, there was a welcome break in the rainfall as first the Taoiseach arrived (not looking the slightest bit fatigued after his 180km charity cycle around the Ring of Kerry the previous day), followed by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.
It was a simple ceremony which began with Enda Kenny inviting representatives of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths to take part.
"It is fitting that we remember here today all those Irishmen and Irishwomen who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations," he said.
This was followed by prayers from Rabbi Zalman Lent; Dr Michael Jackson, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin; Fr Tom Carroll of the Greek Orthodox Church; Rev Kenneth Lindsay, President of the Methodist Church; Rev William Buchanan, Moderator of the Monaghan Presbytery; Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin; and Imam Sheikh Hussein Halawa of the Islamic Cultural Centre.
The faiths may have been diverse, but all the prayers recalled those who had died in battle. "We shall not forget the sacrifice of all those who served and fought so valiantly for justice, freedom and for the dignity of the human race, and particularly those who fell in the carnage of battlefields so far from home," said Rabbi Lent.
"We shall not forget those who were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions in defending all that we hold so precious and dear."
There was music from the Army No 1 Band and the Band of 4 Western Brigade, and hymns sung by the Cois Cladaigh choir from Galway, including 'In Remembrance' and 'I Vow to Thee My Country'.
Afterwards, the Taoiseach invited the President to lay a wreath on behalf of the people of Ireland, which was followed by a minute's silence broken only by the lamentations of seagulls.
And just as the ceremony closed with 'Amhrán na bhFiann', the rain began to fall in earnest again. As the government party left, some gallant ministers sprang into action -- Joe Costello held an umbrella over the Attorney General, while Alan Shatter did likewise for Frances Fitzgerald.