Opening remarks by Minister Helen McEntee at Flanders Fields Memorial
Speech30 April 2019
***Check Against Delivery***
Excellencies, Speaker Peumans, Lord Mayor Ring, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to represent the Government of Ireland at the opening of this Flanders Fields Memorial.
Today’s ceremony recalls both the many thousands from across the island of Ireland who travelled to Flanders just over 100 years ago and the local Flemish people who endured such terrible suffering atthat time. Both found their lives and destinies unexpectedly entwined, and for many Irish soldiers, Flanders became their final resting place. Recent years have provided an important opportunity for Ireland to give appropriate remembrance to these men and women.
The story of the Irish role in Flanders between 1914 and 1918 has been a particularly important part of that remembrance. In some respects, Ireland’s journey of First World War remembrance during this Decade of Centenaries began with Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s tour of Flanders with Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013, visiting the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Mesen, the grave of Major Willie Redmond MP, Tyne Cot and Wytschaete war cemeteries, and the Menin Gate in Ieper.
It was in Flanders too, that the life of the Meath-born poet and soldier, Francis Ledwidge, was so tragically cut short in 1917 at the battle of Passchendaele. As a fellow native of Meath, it was a great personal honour for me to represent the Government in 2017 at a very poignant State Commemoration in Slane to mark the centenary of his death.
Also in 2017, the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders hosted a special joint Ireland-UK ceremony on the centenary of the Battle of Mesen. This was a battle at which – during a time of great political strife at home - any animosities between the largely nationalist 16th Irish Division and mainly unionist 36th Ulster Division were forgotten when they fought side-by-side for the first time during the war. Attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the Duke of Cambridge and Princess Astrid of Belgium, this ceremony took place alongside another at the nearby Wytschaete War Cemetery which is home to the Celtic Cross memorial to the 16th Irish Division and the graves of many Irish soldiers.
At this ceremony in Wytschaete, the soil from the battlefields of Flanders, which forms the heart of today’s ceremony, was presented to Irish representatives.
The Battle of Mesen has undoubtedly become an important symbol of reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
In 1998, President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated the Island of Ireland Peace Park there. This seminal event was the culmination of monumental work by the late Paddy Harte, Glen Barr and many others. It became a watershed moment in how we remember the First World War here in Ireland.
This commitment to remembrance has continued. Our Embassy in Brussels, alongside representatives of the Defence Forces, attended more than 30 commemorative ceremonies throughout Belgium during last November’s Armistice Weekend marking the centenary of the war’s end.
While the First World War witnessed the largest engagement of Irish soldiers on Flemish soil, the shared military history of Ireland and Flanders goes back centuries.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of Irish soldiers fought on both sides of the conflict which overwhelmed the then Spanish-ruled Flanders. We cannot forget those Irish exiles, the Wild Geese, who fought at a later period, as part of the famed Irish Brigade, in battles which took place in the area.
This shared military heritage can be traced back to 1298, when the 1st Earl of Kildare travelled with Edward the First on his military expedition in support of the Count of Flanders.
This Memorial brings together soil from the resting place of so many Irish First World War soldiers who died in Flanders, with earth from the four provinces of their homeland. Given the intertwining histories of Ireland and Flanders, it is a deeply moving and poignant symbol of the ties that bind our peoples.
I would like to thank Speaker Peumans for being here today. I commend the Government of Flanders and Dublin City Council for their efforts in establishing this wonderful memorial. I would also like to thank the Belgian Ambassador, Pierre-Emmanuelde Bauw and our Ambassador Helena Nolan for their work. This memorial, in the heart of Dublin, will now stand as a monument to the shared history of Ireland and Flanders.
I take this opportunity to pay special tribute to the people of Flanders. Their efforts in preserving the resting places of Irish First World War soldiers have been crucial in ensuring that this part of Irish history has not been forgotten. I thank them for the care they have shown for our dead over the past one hundred years and for the welcome they have unfailingly shown to the many thousands of Irish people who have travelled to Flanders seeking part of their own family history or simply a better understanding of this sad chapter of our shared history.
And so, on behalf of the Irish Government:
Go raibh maith agaibh;