The thousands of Irish soldiers who died at the Battle of the Somme have been commemorated at a state memorial event in Dublin.
By Irish Examiner Staff
Irish President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the North’s Secretary Theresa Villiers and Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were among those who marked the centenary of the battle at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge.
Around 3,500 soldiers from across Ireland died fighting at the Somme.
The 36th Ulster Division, made up mainly of Ulster protestants, sustained huge losses at Thiepval on the first day of the battle while the 16th Irish Division, whose ranks were filled with nationalist Catholics, also endured major casualties when they joined the fight at Guillemont in September.
While their sacrifice has always held major significance in unionist culture, only in recent times has the contribution of the Irishmen who fought for Britain won greater recognition among nationalists.
In the years after the First World War, returning soldiers faced discrimination and vilification in what soon became a newly independent Irish Republic. It was only long after their deaths that attitudes south of the border began to soften and the bravery of the Irishmen who served in the war received more acknowledgment.
Saturday’s official commemoration in Dublin, which was organised in conjunction with the Royal British Legion, was another powerful demonstration of this transformation in attitudes.
The sight of Sinn Féin’s Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander, bowing his head after laying a laurel wreath at the cenotaph provided clear evidence of a shift in nationalist/republican opinion. Mr McGuinness visited the Somme battlefields in northern France last month.
President Higgins laid a wreath on behalf of the people of Ireland. Stormont’s Democratic Unionist Economy Minister Simon Hamilton and Ms Villiers also placed wreaths at the cenotaph, as did ambassadors of the eight countries that fought at the Somme, including Germany. During a ceremony interwoven with religious readings and historical reflections, school choirs sang and an actor read the evocative war poem, In Flanders Fields.
The Last Post was also sounded after a minute’s silence. The ceremony closed with the raising of the Irish flag from half to full mast and the playing of the national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann.
Ms Villiers said she was honoured to represent the UK government at the “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,” she said.
“So it is fitting that the Irish Government have ensured that those brave men are now being remembered for the part they played.”
She added: “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.”
Last week thousands of people including members of the Royal Family, heads of state, church leaders and the relatives of fallen soldiers gathered in France for a service of remembrance marking 100 years since the start of the battle which claimed a million lives.
Almost 20,000 died within hours of leaving their trenches on July 1 1916.
Army generals had hoped the battle would be short and produce a pivotal victory for Britain and France over Germany but the gains were negligible and the fighting waged on until November.
The year 1916 was of major historical significance in Ireland and, as such, 2016 has witnessed a number of important centenaries.
The Somme commemorations north and south of the border, and in northern France, come three months after events to mark the pivotal Easter Rising against British rule in Dublin.