Our Commemorative trip to Messines
Early in 2014, Gina Hanley, director of the The Wolseley Singers invited Phil Brennan to facilitate a workshop with the choir. Phil, a friend of the Morrissey family had founded the Waterford Omagh Peace Choir in 2006, in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing. As a result of this workshop, a group of the Wolseley Singers joined the peace choir. Our first outing was a fundraising concert in Gorey.
Last October, during a rehearsal in Waterford, Phil announced that there were plans afoot to travel to Messines in Belgium, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1914 Christmas Truce. Phil had been in talks with Jeffrey Donaldson and Co-operation Ireland about funding for the trip. We were all very moved and felt it was a great honour to be involved in such a historic and emotional event. Learning the 18 pieces required for the trip didn’t do anything to diminish our excitement.Downloading music to Dropbox, exchanging links and being constantly connected to headphones became part of our normal routine.
The days flew by as generally happens with important events, and soon it was the date of departure. We were collected by Phil and the Waterford gang in Castledermot at 2:30am on Saturday the 13th of December. Even at that unearthly hour, our excitement was palpable.
The Omagh and Gorey members met us at Dublin Airport. Jerry Lynch, a native of Clare and famous for his version of “Silent Night – Christmas Truce 1914”, joined the group as well. Don Mullan, author, humanitarian, child of the Northern Ireland troubles and teenage witness to Bloody Sunday also accompanied us on our trip. One of his current peace and humanitarian projects include creator and international ambassador of the 1914 Christmas Truce project for the city of Messines, Belgium. Brenda Hale, MLA, DUP travelled with us instead of Jeffrey Donaldson and Martin Mc Guinness who couldn’t make it because of the impasse at the Northern Peace Talks. Damien Tiernan from RTE and Peter Sheridan, CEO of Co-operation Ireland, our sponsors, made the trip with us also. The short flight to Brussels was followed by a bus trip to Ypres, where the stark reality of the war faced us. On either side of the road, hundreds of crosses, pepper the Belgian countryside, indicating the huge loss of life. The silence on the bus said it all.
Having dropped our bags at the hostel we gathered at the Menin Gate in Ypres where the names of 54,000 soldiers killed in World 1 are inscribed, including the names of thousands of young Irish men. Here, Don Mullan and Brenda Hale spoke about the importance of remembering those who died. It was a very poignant moment especially for Brenda Hale whose husband had been killed at war 5 years previously in Afghanistan. The choir sang “Danny Boy”.
From here we visited St. Nicolas Church in Messines. Messines, the smallest city in Belgium suffered horrendously during World War 1. The entire city was wiped out with only the crypt of St Nicolas’ Church remaining. The crypt was used as a hospital during the war and Hitler, who had been injured on the frontline spent time recuperating there. A moving rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” was sung in the crypt by the choir. It was a quick dash back to Ypres for lunch and then on to Flanders fields, the site of the Christmas Truce. By this stage we were becoming totally immersed in the emotion and grief of the area. As we strolled through the graveyard there was a huge sense of grief and loss as we looked at the headstones of boys, some as young as 14 years old. We were also deeply moved by the fact that some graves were poignantly inscribed “Known only unto God”.
As we sang “Silent Night” in German, English and Irish we struggled to keep it together. There were two headstones side by side of Irish soldiers. On the left was Private T Delaney of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who died on Christmas Eve 1914 and on the right, was Private M Murphy of the same division who died on December 30th. The gap between these two headstones signifies the Christmas Truce and the generations that were saved in between. It was a charged and emotional moment, where the futility of war and man’s inhumanity to man really rang home. The lyrics of the “Green Fields of France” were very apt in Flanders Fields as we stood in silence, completely at a loss for words.
Young Willie McBride I can’t help wonder why?
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the call?
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
The sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying was it all done in vain?
For young Willie McBride it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again and again.
We silently made our way up a quiet country road to the scene of a simple wooden memorial cross. It marks the field outside Ploegsteert Wood, Flanders, where British and German soldiers played football during the World War 1. At its base an assortment of offerings had been placed by the hands of strangers; wreaths of faded red poppies, small, gently fluttering flags and footballs.
Carved lovingly into the weathered timber of the cross were the following words and dates; “1914 – 1999. 85 Years. THE KHAKI CHUMS CHRISTMAS CLUB – Lest We Forget”. Here we met 87 year old Marie The︠re︡se a native of Flanders, who has welcomed thousands of visitors to this site.
Our next stop was to the “Island of Ireland Peace Park”, where the official renaming of the choir took place. We became the “Island of Ireland Peace Choir”. The park stands on a gentle slope overlooking the sight of the trenches where the truce took place and a full-sized Irish round tower vies for position against the skyline of the village of Messines. The memorial serves to remember all the sacrifices of those from the island of Ireland who fought and died in the Great War; a symbol of remembrance and reconciliation. Each member of the choir brought a stone from Ireland and placed it at the base of the monument to signify laying the foundations of peace.
On returning to the hostel, memories of school tours came flooding back as we realised the sleeping arrangements. Making our own beds, eight to a room, eight women to a mirror and eight minutes to get ready for the concert, made for lots of laughter!
On the bus again and in no time we were taking our places to sing in the Cathedral of St Matthew to a packed audience, including the German Ambassador to Ireland, Matthias Hopfner. The concert was interspersed with Don Mullan recreating the scene of the Christmas Peace Truce, reading letters from soldiers to their loved ones, excitedly telling of the camaraderie and fun for those few days of peace.
It is said that a young German tenor sang “Stille Nacht”, prompting the British soldiers to sing carols in return. Soldiers from each side tentatively emerged from the trenches and exchanged cigarettes and brandy. They showed each other pictures of their loved ones. They played a game of football with the Germans winning 3- 2. It was one of the most poignant stories to emerge from the senseless slaughter of millions.
The feedback we got from the local community was very positive and encouraging with the night concluding with them hosting a lovely reception in our honour. A night of rapturous singing by the choir and locals ensued!
After a couple of hours sleep we had a quick stroll around Ypres and a few bags of Belgian chocolates later we were ready to leave for the airport. On checking in, at the Aer Lingus desk in Brussels, the ground steward invited the choir to sing, which we did, much to the amazement of onlookers.
More to come, aboard the Aer Lingus flight the captain invited the choir, mid flight, to stand and sing once again! Though the acoustics may not have been great the thrill was enormous. With so many passengers videoing us we subsequently ended up on You Tube!
On arrival back in Dublin airport, on Sunday evening the 14th of December we caught a glimpse of ourselves on the Six One news. It was hard to believe that we had seen and experienced so much in those few days. It had indeed been a whistle stop tour but a trip that will be etched in our memories forever. We felt honoured and privileged to have been part of such a momentous occasion.
We were back on the bus to Iveagh House the following Tuesday to sing at Mary McAleese’s truce speech with an invitation to join her for the reception afterwards. We concluded our 2014 concerts with a performance in Christ Church Cathedral on 21st of December.
We owe deep gratitude to Dr. Phil Brennan our musical director and his partner Elaine for all the hard work, organisation and negotiations that went on behind the scenes in order to make this trip happen. Phil, musician and author based in Waterford, has a vision to use the unifying power of music to build bridges and heal division. The trip to Messines, with the Island of Ireland Peace Choir went a long way to realising this dream.
Mary Phelan / Jacqui Fleming