Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

First World War centenary: An occasion to stir the emotions as cathedral pays homage to Fallen

The Duke of York with the Very Rev John Mann, Dean of Belfast, and Sir Nigel Hamilton at  the Remembrance Service in St Anne's Cathedral
The Duke of York with the Very Rev John Mann, Dean of Belfast, and Sir Nigel Hamilton at the Remembrance Service in St Anne's Cathedral
Heather Humphreys TD, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and First Minister Peter Robinson were also in attendance
Young Sea Cadets pay their respects

All the First World War heroes have gone now, of course, but their bravery and sacrifices on the battlefields lived on in Belfast last night as dozens of descendants of the soldiers who fought for freedom in the Great War which started exactly 100 years earlier paid homage to them at a special service at St Anne's Cathedral.

They were among hundreds of people including the Duke of York and the First Minister who packed the cathedral to mark the outbreak of the cataclysmic conflict that no one can actually remember now but few will ever forget.

The Deputy First Minister was not present.

One Belfast woman brought a bronze medal – nicknamed a death penny – with her.

It had been awarded to Brenda Winter Palmer's great uncle Willie Kerr, who was killed in action in Belgium, but his Catholic relatives in Belfast never talked about it.

Several months ago Brenda, who works for the new First World War-linked Living Legacies engagement centre at Queen's University Belfast, wrote a play about Willie and last night held his death penny in her hands throughout the service.

"That and a box of tissues. It was very emotional. Willie was here with me," she said.

It was a stirring night, too, for two men from Dublin who were there to carry standards on behalf of the Royal British Legion from the Republic.

Former Irish Guard Noel Cullen (70), who was with ex-RAF man Pat Whelan (79), said: "We've been coming up north for years even when it wasn't what you might call fashionable, but the Queen's visit to Dublin a couple of years back had a big impact on attitudes in the south."

The Irish Government also sent a minister to the service. Heather Humphrey, who is the Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, read the first lesson during the 90-minute service.

On his arrival at St Anne's I asked First Minister Peter Robinson if Mr McGuinness would be joining him and he replied: "I don't think so. The last word was that he wasn't coming."

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell and senior members of the party were at the service, which was led by the Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev John Mann, who said participants were remembering all the men from all parts of Ireland who took up arms and left their homes and families, and the thousands who were killed.

The Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Rev Dr Richard Clarke, spoke of the "fusion of emotions over the Great War – sadness at the loss of so much life; pride in the unselfish actions of so many people; and horror at the inhumanity which always accompanies war".

He also said another emotion should be a determination that if the Great War was not a war to end all wars, people should strive to bring peace and light into the world.

The archbishop also talked of modern day conflicts.

"We cannot spiritually separate the violence, the carnage, and the suffering of the innocent that is under our gaze today – whether in Gaza, in Israel, in Syria, in Ukraine or in Iraq – from our memorialising of the beginnings of the First World War," he said.

"War must always represent the abject failure of the human spirit and of humanity itself.

"It can never be other and we should never pretend it is other."

Five cadets from each of the services lit candles during the service, each representing a year of the war.

The Duke of York, who read a lesson, also lit a candle which was placed beside one of the eight volumes of books kept in the cathedral to record the names of everyone from across the island of Ireland who fought and died in the war.

The president of the Royal British Legion Mervyn Elder, whose grandfathers both fought in the Great War – and survived – said it was important for people here to remember the conflict.

"It's crucial to send a message especially to young people that their great-great-grandfathers sacrificed so much."

During the service Mr Elder was visibly moved as he gave the exhortation to the congregation to remember the dead and to reflect that they had given their todays for the tomorrows of the rest of the world.

He later told me: "It is fitting in this centenary that we commemorate both the historic occasion of the declaration of war and the great loss in that followed in World War Two."

Mr Elder said it had also been encouraging to see what he called the great strides in the Republic to recognise the sacrifices of soldiers from there during the Great War.

"Who would have thought 10 years ago that the red poppy, the emblem of the Royal British Legion, would be sold openly on the streets of Limerick for example."

A minute's silence was observed during the service and DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, chairman of the Northern Ireland World War One centenary committee, read a poem written by the mother of Private Ralph Adams, a young soldier from Lisburn, after she heard about his death at the Battle of the Somme.

Rosemary Lee from Dungannon, who wore her late brother David Lester's UDR service medal on her right lapel, said: "It was a beautiful service, a very touching way to remember so many people who died during the Great War."

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said: "I thought it was a fitting commemoration for the thousands of men from throughout the island of Ireland for paying the ultimate sacrifice and for their huge bravery and courage."

The First Minister said that the service showed lessons could be learnt in modern day Northern Ireland from the First World War.

"We see where bitterness and division leads – to conflict and death and injury, and I think it should spur us all and inspire us all to do everything we can in this era to ensure that there is proper peace and reconciliation," he said.

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