I wish the sea were not so wide
that parts me from my love,
I wish the things men do below
were known to God above.
I wish that I were back again
in the Glens of Donegal;
they’ll call me coward if I return,
but a hero if I fall.’PATRICK MACGILL – LONDON IRISH REGIMENT
(INSCRIPTION ON MEMORIAL STONE AT ISLAND OF IRELAND PEACE PARK, MESSINES)
William McNulty of Brockagh, Co. Donegal, was seeing a Protestant from Co. Antrim, his brother Patrick was skipping his college in Derry.
For that their brother Dan signed them up for the Front where 100 years later I am the first of their family to kneel by William’s graveside.
I have lain a wreath at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ieper, after the sounding of the Last Post.
Gone on to find Great-Uncle Patrick’s name among 72,000 other missing soldiers on the walls of the Tyne Cot Cemetery.
And said a prayer at Great-Uncle William’s headstone at the Railways Cemetery near Ieper.
A truly great-uncle: Patrick
Their mother didn’t have to wait for the telegram telling her she had lost two of her 15 children.
Or the standard copper vases which were sent to replace them. She had been visited by the banshee in the days before.
The tour party I am with had helped me scour the rows and rows of headstones,
Only minutes before until our guide Dermot finally found William at the top of the field in an annexe.
I plant a wooden cross with a message.
We say The Lord’s Prayer over him… they may well have been the last words he heard, he died soon after he fell in a dressing station nearby.
And we return to our coach.
It may be the springing of the year but Flanders is low, open country.
There is little to break the wind whipping up from the sea and we are glad to get in out of the cold.
Dermot tells us he has put our names through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records.
And he has discovered that we all have relatives who have fallen either here or at The Somme.
There are three Murtys I knew nothing of.
It shouldn’t surprise me as this was a World War in which 5 million died, 60,000 of them Irish.
The youngest was 14, John Condon, from Waterford, who lied about his age. So as to prove he was a man and he joined up with the the Royal Irish Regiment. Only to die in a poison gas attack on the penultimate day of the Second Battle of Ypres.
While Redmond was at the other end of the spectrum, 56, an MP and brother of National Party leader John.
He had exhorted Irishmen to prove their loyalty to the Empire in return for Home Rule.
Private John Meekes, an Ulster Protestant fighting side by side with Major Willie Redmond that day at Messines Ridge, saw things very differently.
But he took two bullets in his side trying to save the Irish Nationalist’s life. Redmond was later to die in the dressing hospital.
Trench warfare: So, imagine the mud.
Dermot had warned us that we might experience cemetery fatigue over the four-day GTI tour.
The Ireland Peace Tower, the Ulster Tower, the Somme, craters the size of lakes, and one which is a lake.
Hellfire Roundabout, the most bombed place on Earth.
And fields where you can still find bullets and shrapnel, and it’s wise to tread carefully – an unexploded bomb went off a couple of years ago, blowing up a cow.
And national memorial parks.
A caribou stands sentry over the Newfoundland site and the still preserved trenches.
The German memorial to its slain is simpler but no less poignant… and I am struck by the Jewish names on the walls of missing. Names Hitler conveniently ‘overlooked on his ‘triumphant’ return to the Front 20 years later.
I am humbled from visiting all these memorials.
At the Newfoundland park on the Somme I share my Grandpa’s War experience.
Grandpa Murty was running with a bad crowd as a 15-year-old and was taken to the Glasgow Docks by his Dad and put on a boat to Canada.
Twenty years later, he was fighting on the Front, was gassed out, and returned to Scotland to recuperate.
There he was treated by a nurse from Castledergh, Co. Tyrone, and stayed to raise a family.
I knew him when he was an old man.
When his eyes lit up at talk of Canada where his son, my uncle, emigrated. He never did talk of the Front.
Harry Patch, the last British soldier, or Tommy, was 100 before he spoke publicly of the War.
Laying the wreath at the Menin Gate he asked that the soldiers on both sides of the line should be remembered.
No, I am not experiencing Cemetery Fatigue but I want to see the Ieper behind the lines that Harry and my forbears saw.
Through the Menin Gate in Ieper (the Dutch/Flems now have their town back), there is a funfair.
This raises quizzical looks among our group.
I figure though that soldiers would have caroused with the locals in their time away from the Front.
And enjoyed the company of the women and sampled the Belgian beer.
I am on leave too, so I repair to Tom’s Bierhaus, the Hopperie.
Where he has a selection of 350 very strong beers, coming in all shapes and sizes of glasses.
One horn-shaped in a wooden contraption which Simon, our very own Belgian historian with a rogue Irish gene, is drinking from.
We had been initiated in the Belgian beer drinking culture earlier, the In’t Klein Stadhuis restaurant in the square where we enjoyed a hearty stew.
I went for the fish stew (waterzooi). I will have, and thoroughly enjoy the other dish, beef and beer stew (karbonaden) before the trip is out.
Porter and stew, this all feels very Irish and I imagine my great-uncles doing the same 100 years ago.
They might also have been intrigued at what the Belgians did with their potatoes.
French fries come from Belgium and they dip them in mayonaise as they do waffles which they eat with syrup and bacon.
Enough waffle about food. You want to know more about Ieper. It is at the crossroads of north-west Europe and has been fought over since Roman times. Hence the fortifications around it, the remnants of which you can still walk on on the Lille gate.
Its heydays was the Middle Ages when it became prosperous through its textiles trade.
And the Cloth Hall has stood proudly in the main square against fire and firepower since the 1300s.
Its other dominant feature is the cathedral.
St Martin’s has been rebuilt, just like much of the city, as faithfully as was possible to how it had been before the Germans flattened it in the War.
I find myself inside it on the Sunday night.
The service, naturally is in Flemish, and I have to concentrate to follow the cues.
I find the sign of peace particularly poignant and the collection interesting – a nun comes around with a small cooking pot.
I consider this might be the equivalent of Ian Paisley’s ‘silent collections’ at his presbytery in Co. Antrim and am relieved to see that th inside is covered in felt.
I take the Body of Christ, now for the Blood.
And for that I go to Bruges for the last day of the GTI tour.
I am stood opposite an altar in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where the sternest priest I have ever faced – and I was taught by the Jesuits – guards the glasss phial.
Which purportedly includes a fabric which Joseph of Arimathea used to bathe the bloody corpse of Our Lord.
I make a donation and am rewarded with a prayer memento.
Which I will place on any work station alongside other precious keepsakes from travels past.
A Pilgrim’s Prayer from the Camino, and also from here a Passchendale candle.
I am now headed home and as I depart I count my blessings.
Tonight, I will sleep in a warm bed besides my loved one, while my relatives (and yours) lie in a Flanders field.
Dublin/Brussles Available dates – 21 May 2016 – 24 May 2016
20 June 2016 – 23 June 2016
06 September 2016 – 09 September 2016
19 September 2016 – 222 September 2016.
There is also a Cork departure flying with Aer Lingus www.aerlingus.com into Amsterdam. The price is from €667pps. Available dates 15 October 2016 – 18 October 2016
WHO TO TRAVEL WITH
Travel to Belgium and France with GTI – The Group Travel Specialists.
They offer a four-day tour which is guided by a professional historian.
The tour includes visits to key WWI sites. GTI also provides tailor-made holidays, agricultural tours, school tours etc.
For more on this trip, and similar trips list www.gti-ireland.com. Call (01) 843734 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in 2016.