One hundred years on from the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) – in which 25 Inishowen men were killed within a few hours of each other – Dónal Campbell recalls a 2008 trip to the First World War killing fields of France and Belgium
SOME things, some places, are sadness personified. One such place is the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders, Belgium. There – incredulously – on the crest of a ridge that dominates the otherwise flat Flemish countryside, stands an Irish round tower. The tower, dating not from ancient times but from 1998, stands in memoriam to Irishmen who died while fighting in the British Army during the First World War. As I was to find out, these were northerners and southerners, unionist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant.
Inscribed on a stone slab leading to the tower were the poignant words of Glenties-born writer Patrick MacGill, who experienced the First World War as a raw recruit in the London Irish regiment. Only a cynic – devoid of all emotion – could have failed to be moved reading his words:
I wish the sea were not so wide that parts me from my love,
I wish the things men do below were known to God above
I wish I were back again in the Glens of Donegal,
They’ll call me a coward if I return but a hero if I fall
I found myself standing in that bleak corner of a Belgian field on a bitterly cold morning in February 2008, having been invited there by the International School for Peace Studies who operate out of Derry and Messines in Belgium.
The trip was something of an emotional rollercoaster, which tapped into the sheer horror of war and explored the potential of reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland.
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