Irish World editor Bernard Purcell was at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin
The President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, his two predecessors Marys McAleese and Robinson and Taoiseach Enda Kenny last weekend led tributes to Irish soldiers – from all over the island – who died at the Battle of the Somme a hundred years ago.
President Higgins laid a commemorative wreath at the Cenotaph in the Irish National War Memorial on behalf of the people of Ireland. But in deference to many Unionist and Northern Irish sensitivities wreaths were laid also not just by Britain’s popular Ambassador to Ireland, Dominick Chilcott, in his last official function in that role, but by Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers, Stormont’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and the DUP Economy Minister at Stormont Simon Hamilton.
That meant Ireland and the UK were represented once each by wreaths, laid by the President and the UK’s Ambassador, and Northern Ireland represented three times. The Somme commemoration ceremony was just three months after a series of events to marking the 1916 Easter Rising. Ambassadors and Honorary Consuls of the eight countries, including Germany, whose armies took part in the battle all laid wreaths.
Approximately 3,500 Irish soldiers died fighting at the Somme and they included the 36th Ulster Division which suffered huge losses at Thiepval on the first day of the battle and the 16th Irish Division who suffered major casualties when they joined the fight at Guillemont in September.
In all, more than a million men died. The British Army lost 420,000 men in all, including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone, the French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.
The commemoration in Dublin was organised with the Royal British Legion branches in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. Its representatives, from North and South, placed memorial records listing those who died on the cenotaph. The flags of the 16th Irish Division, the 10th Irish Division, and the 36th Ulster Division, which all suffered grievous losses in the quagmire of the Somme, stood proudly in the background.
The guard of honour at yesterday’s ceremonies included members of the 27th Infantry Battalion, as well as the Air Corps and the Irish Naval Service. One of the most symbolic aspects of it was the fact that Stormont’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness bowed his head after laying a laurel wreath at the cenotaph. Mr McGuinness had also visited the Somme battlefields in northern France last month. There were religious, historical reflections, Oft In The Stilly Night sung by children from the choirs of Mount Sackville and Schoil Mhuire, and an actor from the Gaiety School of Acting read In Flanders Fields in character.
The Last Post and Reveille were sounded after a minute’s silence and the ceremony closed with the raising of the Irish flag from half to full mast and the playing of the national anthem, Amhran na bhFiann.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, who was one of the leaders of the UK’s Brexit campaign despite the fact Northern Ireland voted to remain, said she was honoured to represent the UK government at a “very special” commemoration.
“Tens of thousands of men from Ireland volunteered to fight in the Great War and gave their lives serving in the uniform of the British Army.
“In particular, we commemorate today all those from the 16th Irish Division who sustained an agonising 4,300 casualties in successfully capturing Guillemont and Ginchy in September 1916.
“So it is fitting that the Irish Government have ensured that those brave men are now being remembered for the part they played.
“Just as in Great Britain, so across the island of Ireland there was virtually no corner left unaffected by the Battle of the Somme. The contribution and sacrifice of the men who fought in the battle was immense, and we should never forget it.