A special service of commemoration was held in Belfast yesterday to remember and honour the courage and sacrifice of the more than 40 Irishmen who received the Victoria Cross for acts of valour during the First World War.
In the run up to the official centenary commemorations of the ending for the Great War in November, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen, led the service and gave the sermon.
Organised by the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee, the event was attended by the families of the VC holders, veterans’ groups, members of the armed services, forces chaplains, government and political representatives, including the Republic of Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney TD.
Speaking about the service, which took place in Assembly Buildings, Dr McMullen said: “It was a privilege to have been asked to take part in this special service of remembrance to honour the valour of those Irishmen who won the Victoria Cross during the Great War.
“The scale of and horror of what took place in those four years is well documented and can only deepen our respect for those who went from these shores voluntarily, including my two great uncles who didn’t return, and those who won the highest award for their courage, the Victoria Cross.”
In his sermon, which was based on Psalm 46, Dr McMullen said that we encounter in its verses all kinds of upheaval and destruction that is faced by humanity, including war. “Unapologetically and unhesitatingly, even in a world of confusion and confrontation, the writer of the psalm begins with God whom he describes as ‘our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.’ He speaks with confidence, hope and assurance, shines a light directly into the darkness of every difficult and complex situation and declares that there is a rock in a turbulent sea of storms,” he said.
Dr McMullen ended his sermon by saying: “In a world where there is still so much violence and pain, it is appropriate for us, as we gather together, to find our refuge and strength in God, an ever present help in trouble… Christ gave His life for us. And as Psalm 46 draws to a close, we too can respond to Him in this wonderful way - we may be surrounded on every side by war and violence, but God is our refuge. We can trust in Him. We can be still and know that He is God.”
Upwards of 24,000 Irish Presbyterians fought during the First World War. Forty-one ministers served as chaplains - some were decorated for their bravery, while a number paid the ultimate sacrifice. One Presbyterian private, William McFadzean, was killed on the eve of the Battle of the Somme when he threw himself on a box of grenades to save the lives of his colleagues. He received the Victoria Cross for his selfless act.
Private McFadzean’s name and the names of all Irish Victoria Cross recipients were read out, along with a small section of each of each of their citations, throughout the commemorative service. Two local schoolchildren also recited the poems that they had written as part of the ‘Never Such Innocence’ project.
Attending the service, the chairman of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee, Rt Hon Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, said: “In the First World War there were 627 recipients of the Victoria Cross. More than 40 of these men were either born in Ireland or had Irish parents. As we approach the centenary of the Armistice in November 2018, it is appropriate to remember once again these most gallant Irishmen, many of whom gave their lives in battle.
“Whilst many people are aware of the four Victoria Crosses that were awarded to the 36th Ulster Division on 1st July 1916, there are many more examples of gallantry and selfless sacrifice by Irishmen through the Great War. Not only soldiers but also sailors and airmen too. Indeed the first Victoria Cross awarded in the war was to an Irishman, Lieutenant Maurice Dease, from County Westmeath.”
An Act of Remembrance also took place, which involved a two minute silence and the laying of wreaths.