Battle of the Somme: two Irish icons go to an international exhibition

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), News, Volume 14

Two objects that sum up Ireland’s contrasting relationships with the First World War feature in a new exhibition on the Battle of the Somme that opened in France on 28 April 2006. 1916: the Battle of the Somme, an International Arena has been organised by the major museum on the Somme, the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne. It uses symbolic objects to show how men from across the world fought in the battle and were changed by it. Belfast City Council has lent an iconic painting of the 36th (Ulster) Division attacking on the first day of the battle, when it suffered huge losses. Recruited largely from unionist volunteers, the division’s action became legendary. James Beadle painted it shortly after the battle and it was presented in 1918 by the Ulster Volunteer Force to the people of Belfast. It still hangs in the City Hall, a symbol of unionist identity reproduced on many Orange banners. The trustees of the National Irish War Memorial at Islandbridge and the Office of Public Works have contributed a less well-known but equally significant object from Dublin, the wooden Celtic cross that was placed on the battlefield in 1917 to commemorate the role of the 16th Division. This was made up of volunteers from the south, including many home rule activists such as the poet and former MP Tom Kettle. On 5 and 9 September 1916 it took the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy, at the cost of nearly 1,500 Irish dead. Later replaced by a stone cross, the wooden original was brought to Islandbridge. The painting and the cross sum up the opposed memories of the war in Ireland. Commemorated in the North as a vital moment for unionism, the memory of the Great War has been marginalised in the South by the founding symbolism of the Easter Rising. Only recently has this situation begun to be redressed. The presence of these two objects in an exhibition dedicated to the European and the international dimensions of the battle provides an opportunity to think about the Irish connections to the Great War in a new light. The exhibition runs until 10 December 2006.

The wooden Celtic cross commemorating the 16th Division. (National Irish War Memorial/OPW)

The wooden Celtic cross commemorating the 16th Division. (National Irish War Memorial/OPW)

Enquiries: Historial de la Grande Guerre, Château de Péronne, BP 20063, 80201 Péronne. +33 (0)3 22831418,


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