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Address at unveiling of Wicklow World War One memorial

Commemorations, Minister Charles Flanagan, Speech, Northern Ireland, Ireland, 2014


Address by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, T.D.


18 September 2014


It is an honour to be here today to officially open this truly beautiful and moving memorial to those that Wicklow lost in the First World War.

I would like to congratulate the Woodenbridge Village Development Association and the War Memorial Committee for their initiative and their vision in creating this very special place. Thank you to my old friend, Deputy Billy Timmins, for his kind invitation. Billy is aware that I have taken a strong personal interest in commemorations of, in particular, those who lost their lives in the First World War. Over many years I have attended World War One commemorations in Portlaoise, where I now live. Last month, I was honoured to be invited to unveil a commemorative plaque remembering those who lost their lives during ‘The Great War’ in my native town of Mountmellick. The memorial was organised by a small committee of civic minded local people, much like the Wicklow War Memorial Committee. And may I take this opportunity to again thank you for your work and your sense of an inclusive approach to our complex history.

The event in my home town of Mountmellick was particularly meaningful for me as, over the course of my years as a TD representing the people of the town, I would from time to time visit houses, the inhabitants of which would reach under a bed or up on high shelves to show me medals and other mementos of their loved ones who lost their lives on Flanders’ Fields. These historical artefacts were, of course, much valued by the families of those who had fought bravely; however, the climate was such that those families felt unable to mark the contribution of their forbearers. While the War was happening, and afterward, there were attempts to draw straight lines between those who served in the British army, and those who fought for Irish independence at home. To make some right, some wrong. To make some ‘us’, some ‘them’.

Those attempts were all too successful and I do not believe they were unique to Mountmellick. It is only really in the last couple of decades that we have stretched ourselves as a society to understand how misleading those clear lines were.

We forgot the shared experience of those Irish servicemen from North and South who fought shoulder to shoulder in Messines. We let it be felt that the families who had lost their husbands and sons should stay quiet, because they had been on the wrong side of the history we had written. Those divisions were made harder, sharper and more painful by the legacies of grief carried by families from the violence of that time. I am pleased to see that those attitudes are changing. And that change is because of people like you who recognise and uphold the right to honour the memory of their forbearers, their late neighbours and friends, who tragically lost their lives in a brutal and cruel war.

We are in a decade of centenaries of some of the most transformative and dramatic years of our history – what Sebastian Barry so aptly termed a ‘ferocious chapter of the book of fate’.

It is 100 years since the beginning of a war that claimed more Irish lives than any other. The scale of that loss is hard to take in even at this distance.

It is when we stand here in this beautiful Memorial Park, surrounded by the names of these men, from right here in Wicklow that it is literally brought home for us the impact this war had on Irish people. The poignant memorial stones here among us are a stark reminder of the brutality of the War and, looking at the endless list of names, you get a sense of the scale of loss and devastation that visited every household and family affected by a death here in Ireland.

More than 200,000 men from this island fought in the First World War and some 50,000 did not return home. Of those who did make it home, many were injured, traumatised, physically and emotionally scared. I know that Brendan Flynn has produced a list of 1,192 names of Wicklow men who are remembered here at Woodenbridge among them, Willie Redmond MP who lost his life in the Battle of Messines Ridge in 1917 at the age of 56. Redmond is a name we know but each individual loss was catastrophic for those loved ones left behind – for the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, best friends and neighbours…. The memorial here in Woodenbridge well conveys that sense of loss. It is also a fitting tribute to brave men and their families and friends left behind.

And I do believe it is very important that we remember those men. Earlier this year, my Department worked with Google to create a public digital archive of the records of the almost 50,000 men who died in that conflict, each with a different story. These were not simple people. They were not bearers of an ideology set by their leaders. Not blank canvases on which we can paint pictures that suit us. They were by turns, torn, proud, desperate, brave, afraid.

And they are united here by tragedy.

The best we can hope for is a glimpse of their stories. And we look, not just to professional historians but to oral history and local historians, and professional and amateur genealogists, to give us those glimpses.

So, let me introduce one such glimpse, recounted in Neil Richardson’s excellent book, ‘A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall’.

Private William Lawrence’s name is one of those inscribed on stone here. William Lawrence was 28 years old, from a farm very close to where we stand, and serving with the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. On the night of 27th April 1916, he stood with his fellow Irishmen at Hulluch in France. Clouds of smoke rolled towards the line and William and the men around him raced to put on their gas masks. And then, nothing. No attack. No gas. Only relief.

Then, a little more than an hour later, what came blowing through their lines was chlorine gas. In the confusion that followed the previous false alarm, their reaction was perhaps slowed. Their losses were devastating. Blinded, burned and in agony William and his comrades died, as the German attack commenced.

William Lawrence has no known grave.

He is remembered on the memorial at Loos.

And now he is remembered here.

I believe what we can reasonably say is that people from this island fought and died in the war to provide for their families, in defence of Britain and the empire, in the cause of Irish independence, or any of a range of personal ideals and motivations. Indeed, in his address to you last year, John Bruton quoted John Redmond’s address where he stopped to address a parade of Irish Volunteers and, referring to the German invasion of Belgium, urged them to support the allied cause “in defence of right and freedom and religion in this war”.

This, it must be remembered, in a world with no United Nations, no peacekeepers, no International Criminal Court – A world where threatened peoples and small countries, like Belgium, could rely only on the unpredictable calculations of great powers, and their intricate shifting alliances, to protect them. Redmond believed Irish people should take a side. That Ireland could and should act to make a difference and defend the vulnerable and certain basic principles in a flawed and often brutal world.

In 1914, many of the Irish Volunteers answered Redmond’s call; there can be no doubt that many of the men we remember here today, were swayed by it.

Today, looking back at the awful scale and intensity of that war, its complex, contested origins and legacies, we are possessed simultaneously by two human impulses: to honour these men and their bravery; and to reject the war, all its authors, and its pitiless destruction of the youth of a continent and this island. With the benefit of historical hindsight, many now argue that the catastrophic loss of Irish lives in the First World War means that Redmond was mistaken in his call to the Volunteers. This view of him has, to my mind, not only obscured the reasons for his call to the Irish Volunteers, but also, his legacy as one of the finest Nationalist Parliamentarians to serve his country.

Indeed, it is most fitting that today, the 18th of September 2014 marks the centenary of the signing into law of the Third Home Rule Bill – a monumental achievement and a testament to the power and the nobility of the democratic parliamentary approach. To my mind, the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill stands out as one of the most notable achievements of the great Nationalist movement, the origins of which go back to Daniel O’Connell whose own parliamentary and political skills had delivered Catholic emancipation in 1829.

Redmond is a name that belongs in the canon of heroes of the Parliamentary tradition – O’Connell and Wicklow’s own Charles Stewart Parnell foremost among them. Generations of Irish leaders – including O’Connell and Parnell - had persuaded, argued, confounded and confronted Britain in the home of its political power. Despite determined and often overwhelming opposition, they and their successors brought to bear all the tools of a very imperfect democracy to win a long sought prize - Britain, finally, legislating for home rule for Ireland.

By any measure, an extraordinary shift in the relationship between Ireland and Britain; far from a complete, but a genuinely unprecedented, acknowledgement of the right of self-determination of the Irish people.

Home Rule, of course, did not come to pass. Global war intervened. The 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War created a sea change, shaping a new and different Ireland, one that took some time to adjust and adapt to the complexities of historical legacies.

And, here in the present, I think there are three things we must do.

We must remember those who lost their lives.

We must do our best to understand this part of our history.

And we must commemorate the events of that time, respectfully together.

None of these are simple things to do. And they cannot be done properly, unless we do all three.

Finally, as we remember these events and our dead, and as we seek to understand this time as best we can, it is also up to us – collectively - to commemorate them.

There are moments, dates, that cannot be let pass without stopping and marking their significance.

The remembrance of one Irish person lost to conflict takes nothing – nothing from remembrance of another. And the attempt to achieve a deeper understanding of each, only adds to our understanding of others.

And so then, what is left to do is to commemorate them. To draw some meaning in the present from all of this past hurt. So that, in Seamus Heaney’s telling phrase, it isn’t just that “all the strains criss-cross in useless equilibrium”.

I think that we are rising to that challenge as a society. In respectfully commemorating the diverse aspects of our past, we are striking a fair and generous balance. We are doing this through the work of local organisations like yours, our national cultural institutions and our historians, as well as the engagement of writers and artists, our media and the participation of people from every walk of life.

At the political level, we have seen concerted efforts across parties, as well as North and South, and across these islands, to ensure that our remembrance of this period is marked by genuine mutual respect.

These efforts reached new heights with the exchange of State Visits by Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and President Higgins to Britain in April this year.

During those visits, words were spoken and images created, that simply could not have been imagined not very long ago.

Ultimately however, the best commemoration of the men and women of this extraordinary time in Irish history is simply this: to take their greatest hopes, their best principles and their practical determination and be inspired by them.

Indeed, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am very much inspired by the Parliamentary tradition of our political forbearers, like John Redmond. I cleave to the belief that parliamentary democracy and dialogue between opposing sides has the power to effect change. Indeed, we need only look to Scotland to see democracy in action as they make a choice today about their future. As Minister, I will do what I can to ensure that the brave actions of soldiers in the past are honoured by political efforts to ensure peace and stability in our country and on our continent today.

I will conclude with a quote, sometimes attributed to the Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke: “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it” – commemorations such as this one will ensure that here in Wicklow, our history will not be forgotten. We will take with us the aspirations of those who fought in the Great War and those who participated in events we commemorate in this decade of Commemorations:

Better lives for ourselves and those we love.

A better Ireland.

And a better, more peaceful, world.

Thank you