Whilst history books and contemporary footage do their best in conveying the abject horror of World War I, in truth it cannot possibly be comprehended in a real way by anyone who wasn’t there.
However, what Remembrance Day does is allow the relatives of those who fought and died in war to recall the memories of those slaughtered.
Its poignancy also serves as a reminder of ensuing conflicts and the fault of humanity in resorting to war as a resolution to international differences.
In Ireland, as with most of its history, the slaughter of WWI was characterised by religious and political difference. As war clouds gathered over Europe, Ireland north and south was already on a collision course. In the south the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) had mobilised in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
The anticipated civil warfare over the third Home Rule Bill was, however averted by the advent of an overarching conflict, The Great War. Two years into WWI, the Irish Republican Brotherhood in tandem with the James Connolly led Irish Citizen Army, organisations that had infiltrated the IVF, led a rebellion in Dublin in attempt to break the connection with Britain.
The Easter Rising of 1916 would eventually lead to the partition of Ireland. But, whilst Irish republicans sought to break the connection with Britain in the midst of WWI, in northern Europe the 16th Irish Division, led by Major Willie Redmond, the brother of Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, stepped onto the battlefield.
Irish nationalists had responded to Britain’s call to fight in the hope that once the rage of war had subsided the demand for Home Rule would be satisfied. In the north of Ireland, the 36th Ulster Division, mainly comprised of Edward Carson’s UVF, also entered the fray in the hope that their display of loyalty to the Crown would secure safeguards against a British withdrawal from Ireland.
Militarily, the 1916 Rising was a failure and was ruthlessly crushed within five days by British forces. Although initially hostile to the rebellion, the population of southern Ireland reacted angrily to the execution of the rebel leaders leading to a widely spread desire to seek Irish independence. The ensuing War of Independence would lead to the Government of Ireland Act (1920) that created two parliaments on the island, one in Dublin and one in Belfast.
The upsurge in nationalist sentiment south of the new border had a knockon effect. The memories of Irishmen who had died or survivors who found themselves returning from a war fought on behalf of Britain encountered an abject hostility in the nascent Irish Free State.
Effectively, they were shoehorned out of history. Medals and mementos were placed in attic boxes and monuments to their memories allowed to go untended. This trend was compounded in Northern Ireland over half a century later when the ‘ Troubles’ reignited. In effect Catholics from Londonderry who had served in the British Forces felt unable to declare that they had done so. Famously, in the wake of Bloody Sunday in 1972, members of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association marched to the city’s Cenotaph and burned their medals and papers.
This seemingly intractable difficulty was tackled head on however, when in 1996 a group of people from across the island, incorporating political and religious creeds of all hues decided to visit the scene of one of WWI’s most infamous scenes, The Somme.
Amongst them was Londonderry man Glenn Barr OBE, well known throughout the city as a trade unionist and community activist who had set up many highly successful youth training programmes.
He had enlisted the help of Irish politician, Paddy Harte, then a Fine Gael TD. By this point in our history, it was largely unrecognised in southern Ireland, that many thousands of Catholics and nationalists had fought on the battlefields of WWI, and in Northern Ireland, many unionists did not realise the 16th Irish Division had shed their blood side by side with the 36th Ulster Division.
Both Glenn Barr and Paddy Harte saw that the commonality between both Divisions was not only an episode airbrushed out of history, but also saw that the horror of that experience in 1917 was a lesson that could be applied to the reconciliation of more modern Ireland’s political difficulties. So, in 1996 an exploratory delegation visited the memorial to the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme.
Former paramilitaries and exIrish Prime Minister Garrett Fitzgerald were amongst the delegation. Glenn Barr said: “We put our heads above the parapet, knowing that we would encounter stick from sections on both sides here.
“After we had visited the monument I was heavily emotionally struck by the disparity between the quality and upkeep of the monument to the 36th Ulster Division and the small Celtic cross in honour of the 16th Irish Division at Guillemont. We then formulated a committee called the Journey of Reconciliation and Trust and decided to erect a monument in honour of both Divisions.”
After a visit to the Somme Centre at Conlig in Northern Ireland, the decision was taken that if a monument to all the soldiers was to be erected, it would have to be at Messines in Belgium, where these men had fought side by side. The dream was realised on November 11, 1998 when on a two and half acre site at Messines, the monument was unveiled in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, Irish President Mary McAleese, and King Albert of Belgium. Money was then provided by both the British and Irish governments to landscape the entire area. While this project had reached completion Glenn Barr felt that the work had to continue. And, in 2000 the International School for Peace was established with a view to educating youths about the shared experiences of Catholics and Protestants during WWI. Initially two run down classrooms at an old school at Messines were provided to educate visitors from the City.
The obvious and immediate success of the trips in that first year then led to the restoration of the classrooms, that now house murals of the conflict, including a portrayal of the young John Meeke of the 36th Ulster Division tending to the dying figure of Major Willie Redmond. The practical application of the lesson of WWI and its effect on Irishmen north and south was obviously not going to be the easiest model of reconciliation to employ in this City, even at the outset of a fledgling Peace Process.
However, it quickly became clear that former combatants and political protagonists on both sides of the divide here were willing to embrace the story of Messines as a model of conflict resolution.
In the subsequent eight years since the launch of the International School for Peace, a variety of ongoing programmes aimed at both children and adults are flourishing. These not only provide a historical education but qualifications to a high level in community transformation and conflict resolution. Also, as time has progressed, the School has been commissioned to provide arbitration in many highly sensitive negotiations between all sorts of groups in Northern Ireland, including paramilitaries from both the loyalist and republican sides.
Glenn Barr told the Sentinel: “There is an overawing realisation on a visit to Messines that here is a common history. There is a shock of a history that they were unaware of. There were highly intelligent people from the nationalist and unionist communities who didn’t know this, that there was a history which was buried and kept from us.
“Then there is the shock for nationalists when they come home and research their family history and realise the extent to which their family was involved. They could have been as close as an uncle who fought and died and they are confronted with that.
“Also from the Catholic point of view there is the hurt that they were never made aware of this and how are the neighbours going to react to this? “That’s a serious turmoil, but a positive thing. Once they realise that this was the case, they want to embrace it. The history in the shoeboxes in the attics is now being brought down. However the lesson to be learned is that everyone learns from this, to escape the idea that only Protestants attend these events and that it is a matter of a shared history for both Protestants and Catholics.”
It is obvious that the ethos of the International School for Peace is grounded in the practical application of conflict resolution methodology. That ethos is also not afraid to assert ideas and suggestions to advance the theory that lessons can be learned from the past and applied here in the present.
This is manifested in the suggestion by Glenn Barr that Ireland as a whole must be prepared to conduct a cross border Day of Remembrance. Whilst, he admits there are obvious difficulties with this, and that there are those who will resist it, Glen said that June 7 each year should become the date for the act of Remembrance. June 7, 1917, was the day on which the 36th Division and the 16th Irish Division fought together.
“German bullets did not discriminate between Irish Protestants and Catholics as they marched towards the machine guns at Messines. This has to be recognised by Ireland as a whole if the Peace Process is to be underpinned. Although these men had religious differences, they fought together. For example I have often asked republicans what they think the 16th Irish Division did wrong? They went there to fight in order to secure Home Rule, their idea was noble,” said Glenn Barr.
Around 4,000 men from Londonderry fought on the battlefields of WWI. And, Glenn Barr’s family had strong representation there. Lance Coporal Robert Barr, Glen’s father was attached to the Machine Gun Corp and was one of the lucky men who returned home. Robert’s brother and his future brothersinlaw also saw action, one of whom did not return. Glenn’s mother’s brothers also fought in the conflict. The youngest of these was 16yearold John Corey, who later became well known in local music circles, particularly with his work in the Britannia Band.
Glenn Barr also confirmed what has been relayed in many forums before, that those who saw these horrors of battle first hand, rarely if ever spoke about it. His father, Robert, was no different in this respect.
“He only ever talked about the barbed wire and the rats,” said Glenn. Yet, Glenn recalls how every Saturday night, a group of former soldiers from both communities dressed in their Sunday best and headed for Doherty’s Bar, later to become the now defunct Ebrington Bar.
“My father’s friend was a Catholic who came across from Rosemount every Saturday night and more often than not ended up in our house after the pub shut. I always say I was lucky to be brought up in a mixed ghetto rather than just a Protestant ghetto. We all shared our poverty together,” said Glenn. It is not hard to see how Glenn Barr developed a sense of working class solidarity that transcends religion and why this policy is also at the heart of the Peace School. His outlook on a shared history was also helped by his first foray into employment as an apprentice at Brown’s Foundry.
“They also employed a policy of having both Protestant and Catholic apprentices, a policy they never changed,” he said. After a stint in the Merchant Navy, Glenn Barr returned home to what he described as the “worst job” he ever had. But, it was one that would launch his trade union career.
The position was in Coolkeeragh Power Station and after a few weeks there, a new canteen facility was opened. Except, ordinary workers were not allowed to use it. It was to be kept for visiting management. It was when once such management visit was anticipated that it was decreed that the workforce must remain out of sight at lunchtime and therefore consume their lunch in the plant’s changing rooms, which also doubled up as the toilets. Glenn Barr refused, leading to industrial action that came out in the workers’ favour after two weeks.
“It was a nationalised industry, but the worst job I ever had,” he said. Another path therefore opened up for Glen with the Engineering Workers Union. “The majority of people in the union were Catholic, but they voted me back in every year,” he said. Therefore a great deal of experience in the field of negotiation and arbitration was gained by Glenn Barr long before the International School for Peace was ever imagined. Glenn Barr said that his trade unionism was gleaned from his father, who was a joiner by trade and who had very similar experiences throughout his working life, including at the hands of the Protestant ascendancy in Londonderry. The treatment of the working class was also a factor in Glenn Barr’s establishment of the Community Workshop at Lisahally in the late 1970s. At its peak 600 young people learned trades and were instructed by a staff of 56.
As well as getting invaluable training in a raft of trades the City’s young people had shortfalls in their formal education accounted for by instruction in literacy and numeracy. Again, the emphasis within the workshops centred on a mixture of Protestant and Catholic at all junctures and at all levels. Glenn admits that young people from both traditions were deliberately thrown together within the world of work so as to learn interdependence on each other without the need to raise discussion about religion or politics.
“Moreover, I wanted to instil working rules into young people. I did let many of them go because you can’t show up at 10am, go to the toilet, pick your horses, go out and back them, disappear for your lunch, come back for a while and then go home at 4pm. I often said that if any of them could find a job that allowed you to work like that, they should get me one,” he said. The workshop scheme also became much more than a path to employment for many. It also resulted in the scheme being able to buy a 14ft fishing boat, tents in which kids set off on a Friday together and came back to work together on a Monday. In a similar way, rugby, soccer, cricket and GAA sports organisations grew up within the scheme. But, around ten years ago, with the advent of new youth training legislation the decision was taken to stop the shceme because it was felt the worth of the programmes had been diminshed. The inclusive nature of such schemes makes the fact that for many generations the spilling of blood on a common battleground was a matter of a ‘ secret history’, even more stark. However, it also makes it more remarkable that entrenched divisions in Northern Ireland were helped by a visit to a WWI battle scene.
“We have dealt with guys from both sides of the conflict that have committed some of the worst murders of the ‘Troubles’ and we pursued a policy of not allowing them to discuss political issues.
“We expect them to go to Messines with an open mind, then when they embrace the experience you can go on and discuss these things. Before that, you are not ready.
“There are 75,000 names on the memorial at Messines and it is not even known where some of the bodies are. People in Northern Ireland need to be like the Germans and the Allies at the end of both Wars and negotiate their differences, or do we want to fill the graveyards of Ireland with hundreds more?
“Violence in Ireland may have resulted in a shift of power, but it has not brought about reconciliation. Northern Ireland needs to reach reconciliation first and then the people can decide on what they want to do about issues like the border. We have to totally reject all forms of violence as a means of change and once we get to that point we can move forward,” Glenn said. Winning the award for Irish European of the Year in 1999, was an event that also helped shape the thinking of Glen Barr as it was a significant recognition of his work. Glenn says that he did not vote for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 because to him it did not change anything. “ The next morning, nationalists and unionists were on TV debating what their interpretation of the Agreement meant and I thought here we go again. But, the gesture made by people in the south in giving a Protestant from Northern Ireland the award led me to develop a lot of trust and such gestures can only enhance the reconciliation process,” he said. The imparting of conflict resolution has also benefitted from the various formats in which it can be conveyed. History lessons can do a lot, but watching live interpretations of events surrounding the battles of WWI, especially Messines, can give life to a topic that lasts a lot longer than the unfortunate soldiers buried beneath the soil of France and Belgium. To that end, the International School for Peace has commissioned plays on the topic. The ‘ Flowers of the Forest’ penned by the late and renowned writer and composer Sam Starret centred on the encounter on the Messines field between John Meeke and the dying Major Redmond and whilst it has been dramatically interpreted it nonetheless expresses the shared experience of both the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Division. Whilst the play has yet to be staged, hopes are strong that it will be soon. ‘ We Were Brothers’, also by a local writer, Felicity McCall centres on the Battle of Messines, but opts to take a look at the difficulties encountered by Redmond and his decision to persuade Irish nationalists to fight for Britain in the hope of securing a form of independence. All in all, Glenn Barr contends that cultural expression lends itself well to the future prevention of the ideological exploitation of our people in both traditions. “ This forces people to leave their comfort zones. Music, sport as well as theatre are all great mediums for education. Also, people in the media have a great responsibility to get the message of reconciliation out there when possible. It will make such a difference to the whole of society.”