'My father has helped honour all the forgotten'
A Donegal politician's daughter tells Anita Guidera how her father reformed the ways we honour the war dead
Published 17/05/2014 | 02:30
AN old man's tears as he recalled his younger brother never returning home from World War I prompted a Donegal politician to make a promise that has almost certainly changed the course of modern Irish history.
It was the mid-1970s and Paddy Harte was sitting in the kitchen of Marshall Taylor's cottage on Croghan Hill, close to the Border town of Lifford, when he spotted the faded photograph of a young British soldier.
Marshall's only brother Henry was 21 when he perished in France in 1917 and his family had no idea where his body lay.
The Fine Gael TD promised his tearful friend and neighbour that day that he would find Henry's grave and put flowers on it on behalf of his Donegal family.
Twenty years later, he fulfiled his promise in the Hourge Orchard cemetery in The Somme in France where Henry Taylor was buried two to a grave, alongside his entire 37-strong Canadian platoon.
But he wasn't prepared for the impact the experience had on him.
"It was an emotional visit. I didn't go there for that to happen but it had the effect of changing my whole life.
"Here were young men that died, slaughtered in huge numbers from the villages and towns of Ireland lying in graves in Flanders and the Somme, unremembered, unacknowledged.
"I wasn't proud of that because I was part of it," he recalled for a television documentary, currently being made by his journalist daughter, Mary Harte.
He vowed that day that he would find a way to have the sacrifice of the estimated 49,000 Irish men and women who died in World War I officially recognised.
He worked tirelessly, enlisting the support of Derry loyalist Glen Barr, and two years later the Island of Ireland Peace Park was opened at Messines, near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium.
Present at the official ceremony on November 1, 1998, were the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth, and the Irish President, Mary McAleese, in the first public event ever undertaken by a British monarch and the President of Ireland.
It was also the first meeting between the queen and President McAleese since she came into power the previous year.
The location was significant, close to the site of the Battle of Messines Ridge, which drew Catholic Irish and Protestant Irish forces from all over Ireland together against the common German enemy and became one of the most successful Allied victories.
Stones for the 34-metre-high Celtic round tower were brought from a workhouse in Mullingar and a former British army barracks in Tipperary.
The tower was designed to light the interior only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the anniversary of the armistice. In the surrounding park, stone tablets are engraved with prose, poems and letters from Irish servicemen.
Also present at the opening of the park that day was a family from Dublin that had only accidentally discovered that a relative had fought in the war when a dust-covered biscuit tin containing war medals and a death certificate was found in the attic after the family home had been sold.
"This is what prompted me to call my documentary 'Locked in Old Biscuit Tins'," explained Mary Harte.
"He was the grandfather of one of them and they never knew about his war background until this biscuit box was found, so they came out to look for his grave and found it.
"What my father did was to open a psychological pathway for so many people, particularly from the nationalist Catholic background, to go and find the graves of relatives.
"It is now official. We can recognise the soldiers of Ireland who served in the British army in the First World War."
Writing about Paddy Harte at the time the peace park was opened, former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald said that the ceremony showed "how one individual with imagination and courage can shift the whole weight of history".
Paddy Harte's next project was to research and compile the 'Donegal Book of Honour' containing the names of all known people from his native county who died in that war.
The book has become a template for similar versions in Belfast, Dublin and Cork.
On a recent visit to Flanders, Mary Harte placed a wreath at the Menin gate in memory of Donegal's fallen soldiers. It was an emotional trip, knowing that her father, who is now suffering ill-health, will probably never make the trip again.
"My father used to talk about the voices from the graves that were calling to him to hear them. I felt they were resting. They were acknowledged. They were at peace."
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
Irish Independent Supplement