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Irish Somme dead remembered in Dublin

By David Young

Theresa Villiers and Martin McGuinness have taken part in a commemoration event for thousands of Irish soldiers who died at the Battle of the Somme.

Irish President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny also marked the centenary of the battle at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge.

Around 3,500 soldiers from across Ireland died fighting at the Somme.

The 36th Ulster Division, made up mainly of Ulster protestants, sustained huge losses at Thiepval on the first day of the battle while the 16th Irish Division, whose ranks were filled with nationalist Catholics, also endured major casualties when they joined the fight at Guillemont in September.

While their sacrifice has always held major significance in unionist culture, only in recent times has the contribution of the Irishmen who fought for Britain won greater recognition among nationalists.

In the years after the First World War, returning soldiers faced discrimination and vilification in what soon became a newly independent Irish Republic. It was only long after their deaths that the bravery of the Irishmen who served in the war received more acknowledgment.

Saturday's official commemoration in Dublin, which was organised in conjunction with the Royal British Legion, was another powerful demonstration of this transformation in attitudes.

The sight of Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander, bowing his head after laying a laurel wreath at the cenotaph provided clear evidence of a shift in nationalist/republican opinion. Mr McGuinness visited the Somme battlefields in northern France last month.

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