Thursday 22 February 2018

Both sides of divide unite to honour our shared history

THIS time it was Ireland's turn to make the grand gesture, breaking the silence that for decades many had despaired would never be broken.

But when the moment came, the nation was not found wanting and -- not for the first time on this royal visit -- it turned out that it is never too late to lay to rest the old ghosts, quarrels and misunderstandings.

Amid the powerful twin icons of the Tricolour and the poppy yesterday, the blanket of silence that had become a pointless and intolerable one, resounding down several generations, was finally torn asunder.

Revealed behind it was the simple human bravery of the 50,000 Irish people who lost their lives fighting for the British forces in World War One.

Some were "Redmond's men" -- signing up in the hope of securing Irish home rule as a reward. Some had fought for Europe and for justice, others out of loyalty to the crown. For some youngsters it was the excitement of war, while for others it was a way to escape crushing poverty.

All were heroes who, with the passage of time and politics, became the forgotten ones whose valour was covered over with "shame".

Finally, yesterday, they were given their due recognition at what would have been an unthinkable gathering just a few short years ago.

The Irish President and the queen of England, Orangemen in their sashes, loyalist "hardliners", unionist politicians and political leaders from this side of the Border, Irish citizens and British subjects -- all seated peaceably under the fluttering Tricolour while first the British and then the Irish national anthem sounded.

The National War Memorial Gardens were completed in the 1930s but were never officially opened. They fell into disrepair in the 1970s before being repaired in the 1980s.

But even today many Irish people admit they have never been to visit this lush and tranquil oasis on the banks of the Liffey, with its sumptuous architecture of the renowned Edwin Lutyens and sunken rose gardens.

With the Tricolour in the foreground and the flags of the UN, the Union Jack and the three divisional flags of the British Legion veterans' organisation at the rear, guests took their seats yesterday for another page in Irish history.

Amongst them were several frail veterans who had fought for the British in World War Two, wearing their medals with pride, together with their families.

Several members of the Irish Defence Forces were in the line-up to meet the queen, including Colonel Brian Dowling, the head of the Ordnance Corps; Able Seaman Ben Murphy, of the speedboat that intercepted the 'Dances with Waves' drugs yacht in Cork in 2008; and Captain Ed Hollingsworth, who recently airlifted some British citizens from Tripoli on humanitarian grounds.

Also there was Signalwoman Emma Kells who recently rescued a young man from a treacherous river and who is deploying to Lebanon next month, as well as Katie Berry (18), the youngest new recruit to the Defence Forces.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan was the first of the dignitaries to arrive and then came the queen, in pale turquoise, and Prince Philip, walking in with President Mary McAleese, in sombre black, with her husband Martin. And after being greeted by the Army's Chief of Staff Lt General Sean McCann and Brig General Denis Murphy, they all proceeded up the green carpet in silence.

The British anthem played and then the queen placed a wreath of poppies on the War Stone. After Mrs McAleese did the same, a minute's silence in memory of those who had lost their lives was observed, broken only by the sound of clicking cameras.

A lone piper then took centre stage to play 'Oft in the Stilly Night' -- greatly associated with World War One. 'The Last Post' was sounded, the national flag raised and then came the mournful 'Reveille'.

Then the Irish national anthem was played to a more sprightly beat and it was touching how nobody -- no matter what their persuasion -- relaxed their dignified demeanour, observing both anthems with equal gravitas.

The queen and Mrs McAleese then toured the two granite bookrooms where the book of the remembrance, listing the names of those Irish who had died in World War One, and the Ginchy Cross -- an eight-foot high handmade cross made of wood from the trenches -- are on view.

As they left the gardens, Jackie McDonald of the UDA admitted that he never thought he would see this day. They had come a long journey for this, he stressed, adding that it would not have happened without the work of Martin McAleese as mediator.

He expressed his sympathy to "all victims of the Troubles and their families". Again reiterating "all victims".

"President McAleese is a personal friend and the queen is my queen," he said, when asked how it felt to be a guest of the Irish State at such an event.

Former unionist MLA Dawn Purvis, sporting the poppy, said she felt "a wee bit overwhelmed with emotion" when she saw the wreaths being laid. She had relatives who had fought in the war and her family still had the bullet that was lodged in her grandfather's army helmet.

"This is another part of our shared history," she said, adding that the significance of the event, with the queen present, could not be over-estimated.

There were 20 members of the Orange Order present, Grand Master Edward Stevenson revealed, describing it as a very special occasion.

"It's just nice to be here," he said, adding that he felt it was important for he and his members to be able to wear their sash with pride in the Republic. He also thought it was good they could allay some fears, smiling as he said: "We don't have horns or whatever."

Irish Independent

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