Belfast Telegraph

The pilgrims' progress that puts EU poll in perspective

By Alf McCreary

Europe has been heavily on our minds, and now that the referendum is over let us hope that the people of the UK have made the right decision, though I am extremely doubtful about that.

Europe has also been looming large, with the football championships in France where the marvellous performance of the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland teams have excited us all.

However, another European event has taken place during a week when we have been availing ourselves of the benefits of democracy( a precious gift in today's world) and also the camaraderie, challenges and joy of competitive sport.

The other European event was comparatively low-key, but of great symbolic importance.

This was the pilgrimage of the two Irish Primates to the Somme and other battlefields of France with a cross-community group of young people from Ireland, north and south.

The Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, and his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Eamon Martin, headed a pilgrimage to the Ulster Tower at Thiepval as well as other memorials and graveyards associated with the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division whose young men from different parts of Ireland stood shoulder to shoulder against the German army.

The mixed group included young people from the dioceses of Armagh, Clogher and Cork as well as Kildare and Leighlin. They were accompanied by other Anglican and Catholic clergy and senior Church figures.

Their journey began on Wednesday at the new and inclusive Memorial Wall at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, and after the visit to Thiepval, Ypres and the Menin Gate on Thursday, they went yesterday to the Memorial Museum Passchendale 1917, and the Irish Peace Park at Messines.

Before they even left Ireland Archbishop Clarke set the scene by noting that "coming from very different contexts both, spiritually and geographically, and carrying very different understandings of our history, we have smuch to share with one another and much to learn".

Archbishop Martin said: "The Battle of the Somme has left us with a haunting image we are all familiar with - the thousands of pale, white gravestones dotting the ground which symbolises the graves of many who were lost.

"We go there, one hundred years after one of the bloodiest battles in human history, on a pilgrimage of prayer and remembrance."

There was an added poignancy in that both archbishops revealed that they had a personal link with the Flanders battlefields. Dr Martin had a great-uncle who served there, while the great-uncle of Dr Clarke's late wife also took part.

This pilgrimage was a visionary initiative by both Churches in helping young people from different parts of this island, and from different denominations, to explore the reality of the past and to reflect on those terrible times.

When I was their age, nothing like this was available. The Somme was seen as a battle where Protestants fought the Germans, and men from the rest of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, who also fought in Flanders, were disgracefully airbrushed out of history.

The young people who travelled to France this week were privileged, but we too at home must continue to reflect and to separate the reality from the myths of our shared and bloody history.

During the Battle of the Somme, from July 1 to November 18 1916, more than one million men were killed or wounded during one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history involving British, French and German combatants.

After the bruising debate we have had in the past weeks, that fact alone should place all our thoughts on Europe, and the EU, in perspective.

Belfast Telegraph

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