Friday 23 March 2018

Higgins lays first wreath as President in lasting remembrance

President Michael D Higgins is greeted by the Dean
of St Patrick's Cathedral Rev Robert MacCarthy for the
Remembrance Day service yesterday
President Michael D Higgins is greeted by the Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral Rev Robert MacCarthy for the Remembrance Day service yesterday
Mr Higgins is met by High Sherrif Don Keegan in Derry, where he attended the finals of the All-Island School Choir Awards

AT PRECISELY 3.15pm yesterday, President Michael D Higgins entered in procession through the door of St Patrick's Cathedral and walked down the aisle of Ireland's largest church, past packed pews of people who had come to remember the Irish dead of two world wars.

This Evensong remembrance service was his first public engagement as ninth Uachtarain na hEireann -- and it was in marked contrast to his inauguration two days previously, which had taken place in a building also named after Ireland's patron saint.

For while Mr Higgins's inauguration in St Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle had been a formal state occasion, the warm emotions surrounding the event gave it a sort of informal conviviality.

But his debut outing as Head of State could hardly have been more solemn. In attending this ceremony to honour the Irish men and women who had died fighting in the British army in World Wars One and Two, he was walking in the steps of his two presidential predecessors, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, who had both taken part during their terms of office.

And in entering the soaring gothic Church of Ireland cathedral, Mr Higgins would have been mindful of less tolerant times.

In 1949, when the funeral took place of Ireland's first president, Douglas Hyde, the entire cabinet (with the exception of Dr Noel Browne) remained in the grounds, as Catholics were forbidden to enter a non-Catholic church.

However, Mr Higgins has already pledged to continue the work of Mrs McAleese in reaching out across the island's sectarian divide, and so the first person to greet him yesterday was the Dean of St Patrick's, the Very Reverend Robert MacCarthy.

It is estimated that up to 500,000 Irishmen and women fought in the two wars, and that almost 10,000 died on the battlefields. Among the congregation were a small number of veterans from World War Two and several excellencies, including US Ambassador Dan Rooney, British Ambassador Julien King and Catherine Muigai Mwangi, Kenya's ambassador to Ireland.

The service was comprised of hymns from the cathedral's choir and several readings -- one of the more poignant of which was given by the president of the Royal British Legion in Ireland, Major General (retired) David O'Morchoe.

He read the short but moving Kohima Epitaph, named after a battle which was part of the Burma campaign in 1944 and which is inscribed on a memorial at the site: "When you go home, Tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, We gave our today". And then it was time for Mr Higgins to perform his first ceremonial function. Both he and Major General O'Morchoe laid wreaths -- one of green leaves and one of red poppies respectively -- at the base of a memorial.

This was not just remote history to Michael D -- he was born in 1941, a year of terrible events when more of Europe fell into the hands of the Nazis, when Germany attacked Russia and Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

Afterwards, journalist and historian Kevin Myers addressed the congregation, his speech underlying the deep involvement of Irish soldiers in both conflicts.

He listed many soldiers -- both Catholic and Protestant -- who were killed, including many siblings.

And he highlighted the fact that many Irish nurses also died -- nine lost their lives when their ship was torpedoed in 1944.

"Yes, there are monuments to the dead; but none to the bereaved, perhaps because the stone has not yet been cut that is able to convey the wasteland of grief that must lie between that final telegraph and the final peace of the tomb," Mr Myers said.

And he concluded with a pointed reference to the present economic war which is raging in Europe.

"Our bondholders there who have us on a rack might be completely unaware of the debt that they owe the 10,000 Irish dead, who died freeing an unfree Europe, but at least we in this cathedral do know of it," he said.

Mr Higgins may have laid his first wreath on his first day in office, but it certainly won't be the last, given that his presidency will encompass a whole range of important and highly symbolic commemoration events relating to the history of the State -- the 1913 Dublin Lock-out, the 1916 Rising, the First World War and the Battle of the Somme.

But both he and his wife Sabina looked happy and relaxed as they left St Patrick's Cathedral after over an hour to travel to Derry, where Mr Higgins would present the winning trophy at RTE's All-Ireland School Choir of the Year competition.

A few locals had gathered to wave and cheer him on his way -- for there'll be no more lazy Sundays for Michael D for the next seven years.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News