On a cold wet November day in 1996 I stood for the first time at the colossal Commonwealth Monument on the Somme bearing the names of 74,000 soldiers who had perished in that slaughterhouse in 1916 and who have no known graves.
Along with 49 other people from different backgrounds and different parts of Ireland who made this historic journey not a word was uttered as each and every one of us chocked back the emotions that overwhelmed us.
The short distance to the Ulster Tower commemorating the sacrifice of the men of the 36th Ulster Div. only intensified those emotions as I pictured my father, his brother, Hamilton - later to become a POW, and my mother's four brothers, the youngest of which, uncle Johnny Curry, was only 15 years of age, all "going over the top" on the 1st July 1916 into the greatest single disaster in the history of the British army.
This however did not prepare me for the sight that was to confront me when we arrived at the little village of Guillimont only 5 or 6 miles away where the men of the Nationalist 16th Irish Div. had fought and died. There I saw a neglected Celtic cross, surrounded by a rusting metal railing, bearing the inscription in Irish, translated into English, "TO THE GLORY OF IRELAND". I felt a mixture of embarrassment and shame. Was this the only glory that was to be afforded them? How could the memory of those from the Unionist 36th Ulster Div. be so revered while that of the young men of the Nationalist 16th Irish Div. had been confined to the annals of a forgotten history? I could not speak, I was confused, I was angry at the difference between the two memorials and I was full of guilt that my educational system had not taught me anything about this part of history and angry at myself for not making the effort to find out. That night at dinner in the hotel in Arras I vowed to do something about it. I didn't know what, but I was going to do something. I had to make amends.
Along with the rest of the group it was agreed that we would create a new organisation, later to become "The Journey Of Reconciliation Trust", of which I had the privilege of serving as Joint Executive Chairman. It was the JORT that was to build the "Island of Ireland Peace Park" in Messines to symbolise the coming together of the Cross at Guillimont and the Ulster Tower in a joint memorial to the memory of all those from the Island of Ireland who fought and died in "The Great War"
Messines was selected because it was at the battle of Messines on 7th June 1917 that the Nationalist 16th Irish Div. and the Unionist 36th Ulster Div. fought and died together for the first time and where the young John Meeke of the 36th Div. risked his life to retrieve the badly wounded Major Willie Redmond of the 16th Div. from the battlefield. Two men from different traditions, both there for different political reasons, sworn enemies in Ireland, brothers in arms on a foreign battlefield fighting a common enemy.
Why was I not taught this in my history class at school? Why was it kept from me? It was the story that was to transform my life and when the JORT decided that its work was completed with the official opening of the Peace Park on 11th November 1998 I decided to set up the International School for Peace Studies to tell the story to others, especially our young people.
I have often said that "I don't mind how you get to Heaven as long as you get there," and the same is true of trying to convince people to move out of their comfort zones and learn to embrace something that might change their lives and from which they just might discover something that is more important than hatred and confrontation. Many have been able to put aside their differences through their love of sport, music and the arts and the task I set myself was to try to find out what could possibly move our people out of their comfort zones of suspicion, mistrust and hatred and I believe I have found it in the simple but powerful story of Messines. Thousands have been moved by the emotional rollercoaster of the visits to the monuments and cemeteries of the First World War containing hundreds of thousands of white Portland headstones. People who would have difficulty in bidding each other the time of day in Ireland are able to share a meal or a joke together in Belgium as a result.
At a time in our own little country where our political leaders seem unable or unwilling to lead our people down the path to peaceful coexistence many ordinary people have found friendships and the ability to respect their differences in the First World War Battlefields of France and Flanders.
Tens of thousands of young Unionists and Nationalists lie side by side in cold foreign graves cut down by German bullets which did not discriminate between Protestants or Roman Catholics, but I am convinced, that they can now Rest In Peace in the knowledge that through their joint sacrifice thousands of people from throughout the Island of Ireland who have made the pilgrimage to where they lie have found peace within and between themselves.
The symbol of that sacrifice is a little wild flower which only grows and blooms when the ground in which it is buried is disturbed and it is exposed to the sunlight, as was the case in those battlefields and much like the visitors who have been exposed to the true history regarding soldiers from Ireland in the First World War. Unfortunately, it too has been used as a weapon to divide our people and at the opening of the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines in 1998 I felt the need to defend its place in history by stating in front of The Queen, President McAleese and The King of The Belgium's "Gallant young men from all parts of Ireland gathered the poppy to brighten up a living hell in those 1st World War trenches of France and Flanders, that innocent little flower offers no offence to anyone yet we, from the comfort of our firesides, have made that innocent little flower a symbol of division."
Glen Barr OBE
International School for Peace Studies