Joint pilgrimage of hope to Messines
In 2016, the two archbishops of Armagh, Archbishop Richard Clarke (Church of Ireland) and Archbishop Eamon Martin (Roman Catholic), led a cross- community delegation of young people from across the island of Ireland on a pilgrimage to the battle sites of the Somme.
Two years on – building on the previous pilgrimage and now marking the upcoming centenary of the end of the First World War – the archbishops are once again leading a number of people of varying ages and backgrounds, and representing the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions, to historic and poignant sites relating to the First World War. The pilgrimage will culminate in a reflective visit to the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines.
Every evening at 8.00pm, the road that passes under the Menin Gate is closed. In a ceremony that had its birth on 2nd July 1928, buglers sound the ‘Last Post’. The Menin Gate ‘Memorial to the Missing’ is a World War I memorial, situated in Ypres, West Flanders. Inscribed on it are the names of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient, but whose bodies have never been identified or found.
Poignantly, the memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and it marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that would have led Allied soldiers to the front line.
The Somme battlefields website records that: “In August 1916, the 16th (Irish) Division was transferred from Loos to the Somme. The division consisted of seven battalions from the counties of Leinster, Munster and Connacht, five battalions from the country of Ulster and the 11th Battalion Royal Hampshire Regiment. The 47th Brigade was given the task of capturing a German position in Guillemont, which had resisted repeated attacks during the month of July. Over 1,200 soldiers of the 16th (Irish) Division lost their lives in September 1916 alone.
The Ulster Tower is Northern Ireland’s national war memorial. It commemorates members of the 36th (Ulster) Division and all those from Ulster who served in the First World War. The 36th Division was deeply involved in the fighting on the first day of the Battle of Messines (7th-14th June 1917). The memorial was officially opened on 19th November 1921 and is a very close copy of Helen’s Tower, which stands on the grounds of the Clandeboye Estate, near Bangor.
As the Somme Heritage Centre notes: “For many of the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division, the distinctive sight of Helen’s Tower, rising above the surrounding countryside, was one of their last abiding memories of home before their departure for England and, subsequently, the Western Front.” Many did not see it ever again.
The Island of Ireland Peace Park (Páirc Síochána d’Oileán na hÉireann) in Messines, near Ypres, is a war memorial close to the site of the June 1917 battle for the Messines Ridge. The Great War 1914-18 website describes it as a memorial site “dedicated to the soldiers of Ireland, of all political and religious beliefs, who died, were wounded or missing in the Great War of 1914-18. Irish men and women served with armies of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.” It was officially opened on 11th November 1998 by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, in the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert II of Belgium.
These are just some of the World War I sites to be visited by a party, led by the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh (see page 1). The group is made of people of all ages from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions. The vision is that the “pilgrimage will be a witness to hope and that the visits to these important and symbolic sites, in the centenary year of the end of the First World War, will enable us to forge even greater friendships and work yet harder for peace together in the future.”
That such a visit, with its stated intentions, is happening at all is a signal of hope. It is also the most profound tribute possible to those “whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves” (Peace Pledge – Island of Ireland Peace Park).
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