Federation of Local History Societies and Federation for Ulster Local Studies visit Battlefields of Europe Sept 26-30
by Larry Breen, FLHS
In what was a return visit after our trip in 2010 both history federations joined together to share another trip to the battlefields of Europe and it was indeed a memorable journey.
There was representation from fourteen counties namely, Kildare, Kilkenny, Roscommon, Dublin, Cavan, Galway, Louth, Cork, Tipperary, Wicklow, Down, Tyrone, Antrim, Armagh, Derry/Londonderry and representatives from twenty-eight different historical/archaeological societies.
The intrepid group of travellers left Dublin airport early in the morning and arrived safe and sound in Leuven at about 11.00 am. A most welcome early lunch awaited the group at the Irish College of St. Anthony in Leuven, a Franciscan College founded by Florence Conry in 1607 and now the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe. Lunch was followed with an absorbing talk given by the Director of the Leuven Institute, Malachy Vallely. Malachy presented the history and development of the Irish Colleges in Europe since the 17th century, the establishment of Leuven as an educational link between Ireland and the rest of Europe and the important work it continues to do today.
On Tuesday our destination was to West Flanders to see the battlefields around the town of Ypres. This ancient town was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in Belgium and to see the town buildings reconstructed out of the ashes it is difficult to imagine that it was actually razed to the ground during the war. A visit to the “In Flanders Field Museum” was a poignant reminder to all of us of the horror and devastation wrought by this awful war. We were then met by our guide, Pol, who was to be our guide for the day. Our first stop was at the “Island of Ireland Peace Park” near Messines. Dominated by the impressive Irish round tower built of stone with pieces from all over the island it was a fitting memorial to all the soldiers of Ireland, north and south and of all political and religious persuasions who died, were wounded, or missing. Irishmen and women served during the war with the armies of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.
The European Parliament beckoned on Wednesday morning and we were met on arrival by MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness who together with MEP Jim Nicholson had sponsored our visit. After a very warm welcome and some photos, Mairead again welcomed the group before we were treated to a very interesting presentation on the history and work of the European Parliament. We then had time to enjoy a cup of tea/coffee outside the parliament in the midday sunshine before having a lovely lunch in the Parliament canteen. On a lovely sunny afternoon, we travelled to the beautiful city of Bruges. Some people joined our guided tour and others just went fancy free in the city. We enjoyed another lovely personal story as group members George and Doreen Mc Bride were celebrating fifty-seven years of marriage together and what made it so special was they had spent their honeymoon in Bruges all those years before. It was a privilege to share that special occasion with them. Bruges is the most perfectly preserved medieval city in Belgium boasting a wealth of magnificent architecture including the Halle, the Belfry, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the Beguinage, the Market and the Town Hall. We all enjoyed a most relaxing afternoon in this lovely city.
All were up bright and early in preparation for the long journey into France to the valley of the Somme, scene of the largest battle of the first World War on the Western Front. Our tour was to the Thiepval area and we first stopped at the Ulster Memorial Tower which stands on what was the German frontline during the Battle of the Somme. Standing seventy feet high it is a lasting tribute to the men of Ulster who gave their lives during the battle of the Somme. It was here that we met, Julia, our guide for the day who proved to be a “Gem” and showed great knowledge in particular of the Irish regiments involved in the battles. Again we had the privilege to share another personal story with a member of our group. Jimmy Conway from Lurgan, Co. Armagh told the story about his four grand uncles, the McAlinden brothers from Derrytagh North near Lurgan who all had fought in the war. One of the brothers, James Mc Alinden died of wounds suffered and was awarded the Russian Cross of St. George for his bravery. He was buried in La Neuville Communal Cemetery, Corbie, Somme and Jimmy had come prepared to sprinkle soil from home and lay crosses on the grave if we could manage to get there. Jimmy made a valiant personal attempt to accomplish this task but just failed to make it. However, his passion, enthusiasm and determination were an inspiration and encouraged us all to share the story with him in a special way. Jimmy was eventually rewarded and overjoyed to hear his poem about the Lurgan Brigade read out by our guide Julia on the steps of the impressive Thiepval memorial much to everyone’s delight.
on their 57th Wedding Anniversary
It was with a certain degree of sadness that we left the Leuven Institute for the airport after such a memorable visit but we had one more stop on our journey and that was to Waterloo, a battle which ended twenty years of bloody conflict in Europe. We spent some time in the very impressive interactive museum and it was somewhat awe inspiring to see the spectacular Lion’s Mound.
This was a remarkable journey through many facets of European history never to be forgotten but most of all it was a journey of friendship, sharing, comradeship, fun and personal stories which we shared and which we will always remember.