Eighty years after the guns of the First World War fell silent they made the pilgrimage to the only First World War battlefield where Irishmen from both North and South fought and died together for Britain. In a poignant and symbolic ceremony they inaugurated a 100ft-high peace tower to commemorate the Irish war-dead in Flanders and France.
The event at Messines was a remarkable development in the history of Anglo-Irish relations. For the Irish Republic it marked the ending of eight decades of official amnesia about the Great War. It was the first time that the Irish state had actively participated in a ceremony commemorating the southern Irish soldiers who volunteered to fight on Britain's side. In all, 210,000 Irishmen volunteered to fight on the Western Front; of the 50,000 who died, 30,000 were from the South.
The men commemorated yesterday truly were the war's forgotten heroes. They were "unsung, unhonoured and unwept" in the words of Billy Good, who had made the journey to Messines yesterday from Bandon, County Cork. Mr Good's father and uncle fought in the battles around Ypres.
Such has been the official indifference to Ireland's war dead that few in the Republic know that the youngest soldier to die for Britain in the war was John Condon, 14, from County Waterford. The first Victoria Cross went to Lieutenant Maurice Deace from Mullingar, County Westmeath.
Unlike their counterparts in the north of Ireland, the southern volunteers were shunned on their return. By then Ireland's heroes were the men who led the 1916 rising, not those who enlisted with the English enemy. The years of neglect were "tragic", according to Tom Burke, who led a large group of relatives of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to Messines yesterday.
The little town of Messines, 10km south of Ypres, was decked with Irish tricolours and Union and Belgian flags as hundreds of locals lined the roads leading from the town to the battlefield as the Queen and the Irish President arrived.
For the first time the Irish and British Army bands played together and British and Irish pipers played a lament as the Queen, the President and King Albert of Belgium stood in silence before the new tower.
After a wreath-laying ceremony, a moving peace pledge was jointly read by the Southern Catholic and the Ulster Protestant who had instigated the Messines commemoration.
Paddy Harte, a former member of the Irish Parliament, and Glen Barr, a former militant loyalist, condemned war, and the futility of war: "As Protestants and Catholics we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness," they said.
The tower which now stands on the Messines Ridge battlefield was built by the young unemployed from both sides of the Irish border, with stone brought from each of the 32 Irish counties. It has been designed to admit the sunlight every 11 November at 11am.
Mrs McAleese said yesterday's ceremony in Messines should be seen as a "redeeming of the memory" of the Irish who had died in the First World War. But she conceded it had taken the people of the Republic a long time to acknowledge their sacrifice.Reuse content