There are no McDevitts on Menin Gate (Belgium) but there are thousands of other Irish names amongst the 58,000 for whom there is no grave. The Irish Peace tower stands on a hill over the final battleground where the 16th and 36th divisions pushed the German lines back in June 1917. There are some wonderful inscriptions as you walk in. They say different things but have a single message best summed up in the words of Tom Kettle:
To dice with death, and, oh! Theyll give you rhyme
And reason; one will call the thing sublime,
And one decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for Flag, nor King, nor Emporor,
But for a dream born in a herdsmans shed,
And for the Secret Scripture of the poor.
The drive from Flanders (Belgium) to the Somme (France) takes you along the western fronts most famous sites. Arriving in the Somme valley, seeing the 74,000 names at Thiepval and acknowledging the epic achievements of the 36th Ulster Division, remembered at the Ulster Tower is thought provoking and utterly sobering. The blood sacrifice of the huge international army is everywhere.
Irishmen are everywhere. In the 16th Irish Division the fallen from nationalist Ireland lie side by side with comrades from the UK, India, South Africa, Morocco, France, Belgium, Canada and many more. Many of the states have since decided to erect their own memorials to the soldiers of the Great War. The finest is undoubtedly in Vimy where Canada built the most wonderful monument to its war dead. I first arrived there from the living memorial that is the National South African monument at Devilles Wood. A wonderful circular building it makes no bones about South Africas own difficult history since the first world war. Its a monument to everyone who went to war for the African state. From the Afrikaners in the Somme trenches to the ANC activists who fought for democracy, the building quite literally squares the circle and allows the modern republic to remember without undermining itself in any way.
The South African shrine stands in stark contrast to the only monument to the 16th Irish Division in the Somme. Nestled in the church grounds in Guilemont is a celtic cross. Do cum gloire Dé agus onora na hEireann (for the glory of god and the honour of Ireland) is the epitaph to the thousands who fell between the 3rd and 9th of September 1916 on the green fields of France. It is dwarfed the Ulster tower built within two years of the establishment of Northern Ireland and opened by the embodiment of the new jurisdiction, Edward Carson. The North was quick to remember, it seems the Free State was in a hurry to forget.
The flags of so many nations still fly today in France and Belgium. Some are still in the commonwealth although many are not. The empire is gone, Europe is at peace and still the flag that is missing is that of Ireland. Nowhere is the Republic of Ireland remembering its dead as a sovereign and independent state. The peace tower at Messine is wonderful and a fitting tribute to the first battle in which the two traditions fought side by side but it is ultimately a monument to peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
It is surely time the Republic of Ireland, free, confident and proud take its place amongst the modern states to honour its sons who went to war and made the ultimate sacrifice.