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Posted on Dec 23, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Messines and Memory

By Ronan Thomas

When war broke out in 1914, John Redmond, leader of Ireland’s Constitutional Nationalists and Home Rule champion, encouraged Irish Catholics in their thousands to volunteer for the British Army, notionally to ‘defend Catholic Belgium’. Redmond and many Irish nationalists clearly hoped that their service would improve the prospects for complete Irish Home Rule from Britain. It was to prove an unrealized dream. Home Rule was kicked into the long grass by the British government and military censors prevented the true facts of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin reaching serving Irish Catholics in the British Army. The Great War ground on. In turn, Ulstermen were to suffer appalling casualties at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. By 1917 at Messines, the 36th and 16th Divisions found themselves fighting alongside each other. Before the battle, British commanders expressed concerns about possible sectarian frictions. They need not have worried: the Irish commitment to the British Army never faltered. The 36th and 16th attacked the Messines-Wytschaete ridge, alongside men from the mainland, Australia and New Zealand. Their infantry assaults swiftly succeeded but there was personal tragedy for John Redmond. His younger brother, Major Willie Redmond – an Irish Nationalist MP – was killed in the attack. For Irish Catholic soldiers who fought in the British Army at Messines, victory was particularly bittersweet. At war’s end – and after Ireland descended into civil war from 1919-21- many returned home to face recriminations from their own communities. Some even felt obliged to take their uniforms off on the troop ships back to Ireland. Then, as British Prime Minister Lloyd George deployed the notorious Black and Tans paramilitaries against Irish insurgents, Great War memorials in Ireland were defaced or destroyed – by all sides – in acts of sectarian vandalism. Eighty years passed before a memorial would be raised to mark collective Irish sacrifice in the Great War.


The Island of Ireland Peace Park outside Messines, Flanders. The Irish Round Tower memorial broods over a surrounding landscape steeped in Great War history.

This discrepancy has finally been addressed. The Island of Ireland Peace Park just outside Messines is a fitting tribute to Irish Great War soldiery. Dedicated in 1998 with its peace pledge of reconciliation between Irish Catholic and Protestant and as a centre for modern conflict resolution, it was finally completed in 2004. The Park records those killed, wounded or missing in the Great War from all the counties of Ireland. 32,186 from the 36th (Ulster) Division; 28,398, from the 10th (Irish) and 9,363 from the 16th (Irish). It is dominated by a stone tower modeled on the 9th century Irish Round Tower at Glendalough, County Wicklow. Every year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Tower’s design allows shafts of sunlight to shine onto a map of Ireland on the floor of its interior. The memorials to the fallen – to men, like the Germans united by shared Christian faith – achieve much else besides. Like the many tunnels under the surrounding countryside they mine the seam of ongoing political and sectarian antagonism which runs just below the surface of Irish history. In 2007, relations between Britain and Ireland are transformed, following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Nevertheless, as with continuing north-south tensions within Ireland, they still remain uneasy.

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