Mags Gargan speaks to members of a choir dedicated to spreading a message of peace
Christmas Day 100 years ago saw an incredible moment of humanity in the midst of bloodshed, when German and British troops climbed out of the trenches for an unofficial truce during World War I.
The iconic images of enemy soldiers shaking hands, singing carols, exchanging gifts and playing football have become widespread as we approach the 100th anniversary, but this act of peace seems almost like the stuff of legend or a Hollywood movie, rather than an historical fact.
The Christmas truce is said to have begun with a lone voice in the trenches singing Silent Night in German, transporting the soldiers out of the horror of war. This moment was commemorated at the weekend in St Niklaas Church in Messines, Belgium, by the members of the Island of Ireland Peace Choir.
The choir was originally formed as the Waterford Omagh Peace Choir in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that killed 31 people in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, in 1998. It comprised Catholics and Protestants from Omagh and Waterford who wanted to create a symbol of reconciliation.
“We wanted to spread a message through our music that what unites us as Christians is far greater than what could divide us,” says the choir’s founder and musical director, Dr Phil Brennan.
Phil was a teacher in the Ursuline Secondary School in Waterford when the peace and justice group honoured a young Omagh girl, Claire Gallagher, with the International Peace and Justice Award in 1999. Claire, then only 15, was blinded by the explosion in Omagh.
The Waterford school choir linked up with the Loreto school choir in Omagh for the ceremony, and eight years later Claire asked them to perform together again for her wedding. “We assembled a team from Waterford and Omagh and the rest is history!” Phil says.
Since then, the choir has performed in concerts throughout Ireland, most notably in Stormont and at the peace wall in Central Belfast.
The choir has also travelled to Sri Lanka to sing in orphanages that the choir members had raised funds to construct in the wake of the tsunami in 2004.
Phil says that it is the smaller events, such as regular Taizé evenings in the Edmund Rice Chapel in Waterford, which “really define us as a choir”.
Today the choir has evolved to include members from Tullow, Co. Carlow, Gorey, Co. Wexford, as well as Omagh and Waterford.
In terms of logistics and discipline, the choir is a big responsibility to take on, with four full-day workshops between Waterford and Omagh and lots of practising at home.
“The hours are tough but we have a lot of fun,” says Mark Samson from Omagh, who is one of the original members. “We are a tight-knit group and we look out for each other. It is all about spreading the message that there is not a lot of difference between us and our neighbours. Whatever our religious beliefs, we are cut from the same cloth and everyone in the choir embodies that.”
Claire Cosgrove, from Tullow, Co. Carlow, joined the choir a year ago. She says she feels very blessed to be part of it. “I recognised the choir was something very special from the start. The music is so uplifting and it never fails to move me when I am singing.”
The group was officially renamed the Island of Ireland Peace Choir in the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Belgium at the weekend, during a ceremony commemorating the death of Irish soldiers in World War I. Northern Irish Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson attended the ceremony and visited a number of commemorative sites in the Ypres area.
About 200,000 Irish soldiers are estimated to have served in the war, and the Island of Ireland Peace Park commemorates their involvement, but it particularly honours the soldiers of the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division, who fought side by side in the Battle of Messines in May 1917.
The ceremony and the concert in St Niklaas Church were part of a programme of commemorative events planned to mark the centenary of the Christmas truce.
For years, all that remained to mark the location of the truce was a small wooden cross and an information panel, close to the town of Messines in Flanders. However, thanks to the work of Don Mullan, a witness to Bloody Sunday in Derry as a child, the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field project has seen the development of a number of new facilities in the area to mark the historic moment and facilitate visitors from around the world.
The excitement among choir members for the trip to Belgium was building for weeks and Phil says that everyone was “very aware of the responsibility” that comes with being part of the commemoration. “The message of the Christmas truce cannot be forgotten. There is no greater symbol of reconciliation,” he says.
Mark says it was a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity. “I feel very privileged to have been part of it,” he says.
“Can you imagine what that must have been like for the soldiers? It is an incredible story and something so shared and human. It is a great example of how two opposing sides, of whom there are many today, can lay down what separates them and see something in common.”
Claire says the experience of commemorating the truce “will stay with each one of us. It was a momentous occasion and an example of hope for all of us. It was a great privilege to be part of something this big. It’s about what it signifies for all of us going into the future.”
The Island of Ireland Peace Choir, with Jerry Lynch and special guests, will perform the ‘Voices of the 1914 Christmas Truce’ in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin on December 21 at 8pm. Tickets (€20) are available on entertainment.ie