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Remembering the war dead

At September’s end a number of Jesuits along with students and staff of Clongowes College, visited Flanders and the Somme. There they commemorated the contribution of former Clongowes’ students and Irish Jesuits, to WW1. They laid a wreath at the grave of Chaplain Michael Bergin, SJ, where one Jesuit remarked, ‘We are probably the first group of Irish Jesuits to visit here.”

The memorable trip was organised by Margaret Doyle, Clongowes College archivist who has a keen interest in military history and has been documenting the exceptional contribution of Old Clongownians to World War One.It was led by Colonel Dick Heaslip and Captain Donal Buckley, who guided fifty-two people on the trail of the Irish Soldier and the Clongownians who served and died in the First World War.

Over six hundred Old Clongowians enlisted and ninety five were killed. Their names are inscribed on a brass plaque outside the church door. Past pupil John Vincent Holland won a Victoria Cross – the highest decoration of the British forces – fighting with the 16th Division of the Leinster Regiment at Guillemont in the Somme in September 1916. Forty one others won military crosses. In all, Old Clongowians have been awarded 4 VCs – in the Crimean War, the Boer War and both world wars.

They group was based in Ieper (Ypres), and over five days they visited the Mons, Messines, Somme and Ypres salient Battlefields. On the first day, they met the Irish Ambassador to Belgium, Eamonn Mac Aodha, at St Symphorein Cemetery, where Damien Burke presented him with a copy of his recently published book, Irish Jesuit Chaplains in the First World War.

According to Ida Milne from Clongowes, the trip ‘turned into parallel individual and collective commemorations of fallen soldiers in WWI, as we found graves and markers for members of family, the Society of Jesus and the Clongowes school community.’ There were some surprises when one former Clongowes student found a relative buried at Tyne Cot in Flanders. He didn’t even know that this relative had served in WWI; it turned out he had been an airman.

According to Ida “It was a comradely journey as people shared their various areas of knowledge about the war and the contribution that Old Clongownians made, whether as politicians like John Redmond exhorting Irish nationalists to join up, or whether soldiering like Fr Willie Doyle, Tom Kettle and John’s brother Willie Redmond.”.

Fr Fergus O’Donoghue and Damien Burke of the Jesuit Archives kept people well briefed about the work of the thirty two Irish Jesuit chaplains who served in the war, while the medical doctors described the effects blasts would have had on the human body, and spoke of how war traumas helped to develop medical knowledge in several different fields.

Early in the trip, the Headmaster of Clongowes Fr Leonard Moloney SJ, spoke of the appropriateness of the last two sentences of the Lord’s Prayer regarding remembrance of the war: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” His point gave the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer an enhanced significance each time the group laid wreaths to the Clongowes and Jesuit community at several locations in the killing fields of Flanders and the Somme, fields where human bones found by local tillage farmers still bear witness to

For all who went, laying wreaths to Jesuit Chaplains like Father Willie Doyle and Fr Michael Bergin was a moving experience but most especially so for the Jesuits. As one noted at the grave of Michael Bergin SJ, who served with the Anzacs: “We are probably the first group of Irish Jesuits to visit here.”

In Loker, the group visited the grave of Old Clongowian and Irish Parliamentary Party MP, Major Willie Redmond, who fell, fighting with the 16th Division in the Battle of Messines in 1917. Dr Harman Murtagh gave a moving account of his life and death at his solitary grave in a cornfield in Loker. The school community laid a wreath and once again prayed together. Stretcher-bearer Private John Meeke of the 36th Ulsters risked his own life crossing Suicide Road to pick up Redmond when he fell. Meeke himself was injured in the process, but insisted on continuing because of his regard for Willie Redmond, who was held in high esteem by the troops.

At Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Mr Declan O’Keeffe, Clongowes history teacher, paid eloquent tribute to another old Clongownian, Tom Kettle. The writer, barrister and Home Rule politician died fighting with the Dublin Fusiliers at the Battle of the Somme on 9 July 1916. Mr O’Keeffe described Kettle as one of the leaders of a generation who gave new intellectual life to Irish politics.

He also made interesting connections between some of those we were being remembered ‘In a nice coincidence, Fr Doyle had served in Clongowes while Kettle was a pupil and founded The Clongownian while there in 1895. While the Redmonds predated both men, Kettle had hitched his wagon to John’s rising star in 1906, while Willie would share Kettle’s fate in June 1917 as he lead his men on the Messines Ridge’.

Clongowes school captain Jack Gillespie laid a wreath at the Menin gate remembrance ceremony, which Damien Burke from Irish Jesuit Archives described as ‘a humbling experience.’ At the tour dinner in Ypres afterwards, Mr Peter Gray, a former student, observed that the three pupils who presented the wreath would have been much of an age with the Allied and German soldiers, and that the soldiers were probably as innocent as them.

Reflecting on the visit after coming home,Ida Milne wrote: “The modern tranquility of the graveyards preserved so carefully by the War Graves Commission is aided by the simple white Portland stone headstones, a stark contrast to the conditions in which the soldiers met their deaths. Whatever cause they gave their lives for, there is a kind of peace in these cemetery cities where they lie. Tom Kettle suggested as much in a letter he wrote shortly before his death: ‘I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France that I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into silence, I shall help towards the Irish settlement. Give my love to my colleagues – the Irish people have no need of it.”’