top of page

Ypres visit

Having to spend the weekend in Belgium has its upsides.

I spent last Sunday in the battlefields in and around Ypres in southern Belgium. What is amazing about such a trip is to see how many young Irish men died over the course of the Great War. It was my honour in 2013 to open the Waterford WW1 memorial in Dungarvan, which contains the names of 1,100 Waterford men and women killed in the war.

The strong Irish element in the British Army is also present in the names of the cemeteries around Ypres. For example, I visited the New Irish Farm Cemetery and the Irish House Cemetery. In both cases, the names came from local buildings that were occupied by Irish units near to where the cemeteries are located.

Buried here are the remains of many Irishmen who were members of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Irish Guards to name a few.

Then there is the Island of Ireland Peace Park just outside Messines. This was the product of cross community work by former TD Paddy Harte and the late Unionist politician Glenn Barr and was opened in 1998 by President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth.

Dotted around the small park are stone carvings of the words of soldiers who survived the war and those who didn’t.

The words of David Starrett of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles are recorded there;

“So the curtain fell, over that tortured country of unmarked graves and unburied fragments of men: Murder and Massacre: The innocent slaughtered for the guilty: The poor man for the sake of the rich: The man of no authority made the victim of the man who had gathered importance and wished to keep it.”

The park enjoys a panoramic view of the local countryside south to the French border and west towards the Channel. This raised position made it an important strategic position for the German army.

On 7th June 1917, after months of mining work by British Army engineers, underground explosives were detonated beneath the German fortifications on the Messines Ridge. 10,000 German soldiers died in 5 minutes.

One of the craters that was formed after the explosions is today a beautiful pond full of lillies and birdlife and is known as the Pool of Peace.

Around the back of the crater is another cemetery full of the remains of members of the Royal Irish Rifles, many of them killed on that day in June 1917 in retaking the Messines Ridge.

The head of the Royal Irish Rifles at that time was Colonel Henry Wilson who was originally from Co. Longford. He was killed by two IRA men in London in 1922, well after the end of the War of Independence.

At this remove, political leaders rightly focus on the ordinary soldier and the barbaric loss of life. For decades, the complex history determined that the graves of Irish men from south of the Irish border did not warrant much in the way of national commemoration.

As President McAleese said at the dedication of the Peace Park, “Those whom we commemorate here were doubly tragic. They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. Their memory too fell victim to a war for independence at home in Ireland.”

As I wandered through the New Irish Farm Cemetery, I chanced upon the grave of Rifleman R Andrews killed on the 16th of August 1917. He was killed presumably during the Third Battle of Ypres just a few hundred metres from his grave. A little research reveals that he was Robert Henry Scott Andrews, 20 years old and Presbyterian from 27 Crosby Street, in Belfast.

In these fraught times, these Belgian graves continue to be an inspiration for reconciliation and peace on the island of Ireland.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page