The Historical Context
In the period 1914-18, when Europe was convulsed by The First World War (The Great War, as it was then called), Ireland was not an independent state and was only indirectly involved in the cataclysmic events of those years. In fact, for many Irish people, events within Ireland itself, in the later years of that war and in the six years thereafter, have more poignant memories. Nevertheless, a great many Irishmen, up to 250,000, fought and died in the Great War.
While events at the Somme and Gallipoli are still commemorated in parts of Ireland, the Irish involvement in the Battle of Messines Ridge (or Mesen Ridge in the local, Flemish language) is not so well remembered. Yet in terms of its impact on the course of the war, it was as important as other better-remembered battles.
The Battle of Messines Ridge, 7th June 1917, was pivotal in the First World War, and it was a battle in which the Protestant 36th Ulster Division were to fight side by side with their Catholic comrades from the north and south of Ireland, both of which had lost huge numbers in previous battles. Whilst the event preceded the partition of Ireland, in the run up to the battle such differences were put aside and both sets of soldiers fought for a common cause; the freedom of small nations.
It was, and still is, a battle that presented great hope for reconciliation between the two traditions in Ireland. The thinking then and now was that if Irishmen can fight and die together, surely to God they could live together. Speaking of the Unionist and Nationalist Irish dead of the battle of Messines, one Irish war correspondent declared:
"Shall not their blood seal a new bond of brotherhood among Irishmen, and cry out in judgement against those who should in future seek to stir up fresh the old hatreds and old divisions that have been the curse of Ireland for centuries?"
Irish losses at Mesen/Messines were considerable but regrettably the history of the last ninety years in Ireland has not sealed many new bonds of brotherhood, until now.
The Island of Ireland Round Tower and Peace Park, with the combined educational works of the International school for Peace Studies, are designed to commemorate those joint sacrifices. More fundamentally, they are also designed to use the events of June 1917 to enlighten all those involved in conflict of the futility of violence and to advance peace and reconciliation - especially between the two communities in Northern Ireland and between the North and South of Ireland.