|We have travelled here today to commemorate an Irish hero. A soldier whose commitment to the troops under his command was so complete that he was willing to risk his own life to rescue an injured colleague. An Irishman whose leadership, initiative and courage were so exceptional that they earned him the Victoria Cross. That his heroism took place some four and a half thousand miles from his country is incidental – heroism is heroism whether it takes place in one’s back garden or at the opposite end of the world.
That he participated in a military campaign that many people may frown upon today should not overly concern us either. This afternoon’s ceremony is not a statement about 19th century politics or the rights and wrongs of the British presence in India. It is simply an acknowledgment of the bravery of a forgotten Irish soldier. We are all familiar with the cliché that hindsight is 20 – 20 vision, but in fairness to Sergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan – and indeed to the sixty other brave Irishmen who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the military campaign that followed the Indian Mutiny - we should consider his actions in the light of the times in which he was living – rather than seeking to judge him through the steely eye of complacent retrospection.
The Ireland of today is a vastly different place to the country that Cornelius Coughlan would have left behind him in the mid-1840s. He moved from his East Galway birthplace just as the potato famines were beginning to wreak their harvest of horror on hundreds of thousands of his fellow Irishmen and women. No parish in the West of Ireland was spared the ravages of the famine – indeed here in County Mayo, where 90% of the population depended on the potato for sustenance – things were particularly grim.
Like countless Irishmen and Irishwomen, Cornelius Coughlan left his home place and his loved ones and set sail for Britain. And like many thousands of Irishmen before him and since, he then joined the British Army. From then on, like all good soldiers, he did his duty. To paraphrase Lord Tennyson: “His was not to question why, his was but to do and die.” Happily for Sergeant Major Coughlan, V. C., he didn’t die, but returned safely to Ireland where he lived peacefully in Westport for 40 years before passing away in 1915, aged 87. But another Irish hero who followed in his footsteps only a few years ago was not as fortunate - Lance Corporal Ian Malone, a Dubliner who joined the Irish Guards in 1997, was killed in action in Basra in March 2003 aged only 28. I was moved to hear that, earlier this week, Ambassador Eldon you presented Lance Corporal Malone’s Iraq Medal to his mother.
Coughlan and Malone – two proud Irish soldiers from different times – linked by their bravery and the honour that each brought to his regiment.
I mentioned earlier that many of you have travelled long distances to attend today’s events. It is worth adding that Ireland too has travelled far to arrive here – for today’s ceremony is not simply another journey down a well-travelled path. Indeed for much of the past eighty years, the very idea of such a ceremony would probably have been unthinkable. Up to recently, there was a tendency in Ireland to discreetly overlook the many brave Irish men and women who travelled abroad to fight in foreign wars - to tiptoe past their memory. I am pleased that those days have passed, for to me, this indicates an Ireland that is maturing and coming to terms with the many dimensions of our turbulent past.
Today’s dedication ceremony is another small, but significant, step in our steady progress towards becoming a more inclusive and tolerant society. The men who served in the various Regiments of the British Army came from every corner of Ireland. Among them were Protestants, Catholics, Unionists and Nationalists, their differences transcended by a common commitment not to any flag but to their comrades and their Regiment.
In the history of Irish conflict, respect for the memory of one set of heroes has often come at the expense of respect for the memory of others. As former Taoiseach Sean Lemass, who himself was a protagonist in Ireland’s fight for independence, said thirty years ago- "In later years it was common - and I was also guilty in this respect - to question the motives of those who joined the British forces, but it must in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said, that they were motivated by the highest purpose."
But, highest purpose or not, their memory was to fell victim to the maelstrom of events that led to the coming into being of the Irish State. The suppression of memory and the withholding of respect have hurt all sides, have distorted our perspectives and have skewed our relationships with some of our fellow Irishmen. Today we are keenly aware that if we are to build the culture of consensus promised by the Good Friday Agreement then we need to create mutually respectful space for differing traditions, differing loyalties and for all of our heroes and heroines.
All over Ireland there are relics of our shared past – places and communities that cherish the historic links which are part of their identity. The history of this island is a shared history – with different sets of memories – different interpretations of events – and different perspectives on the outcomes of those events. The pages of our shared history deal with a complex set of relationships – giving accounts of the storms and calms – of the victories and defeats – and of the fortunes and misfortunes of the peoples and traditions of this island.
The true measure of our success as a modern country – as a self-confident and mature people with a willingness to embrace diversity – is in our ability to recognise the different traditions and cultures that today make up this country. We must share in the commemoration of their histories - accepting that each has a right to their heritage and that theirs is a part of ours. Each has shaped the other – sometimes subtly and sometimes crudely - and each forms an integral part of our shared history and heritage.
We hope that the goal of peace promised by the Good Friday Agreement will be our gift to the next generation. We know that the overwhelming majority of the people in both parts of the island of Ireland wish us to pursue the path of peace, to dismantle the culture of conflict and to build a culture of consensus with space and respect for all.
There is a saying in Irish that a good beginning is half the work- tosnú maith - leath na hoibre. Well, we have made a good start but it truly is only half of the work. Building a new partnership between North and South, between the two traditions in Northern Ireland and between the two neighbouring islands is the task now entrusted to this generation.
Events such as todays do not invite us to forget the past but rather to remember it differently. We are paying our respects to the memory of an Irishman who was; above all else, a brave and steadfast soldier who has earned the right to his place among our island’s cherished dead. Sergeant Major Coughlan, V. C. is every bit as much an Irishman as are Lance Corporal Ian Malone, those who fought for her independence and those who fought against each other in our country’s civil war.
Before I finish, I would like to welcome one of our distinguished guests – Mr. Andrew McKinley M. P. who, I believe, deserves a special mention. For it was through his efforts that the “Hero’s Return” scheme was made available to Irish ex-servicemen who live in Ireland. Under this scheme many Irish-based ex-servicemen have been able to revisit the foreign battlefields where they fought and I know that this has meant a great deal to them. So thank you Ian, and well done!
Finally, this ceremony simply couldn’t have taken place without the vision and drive of Captain Donal Buckley. Congratulations Donal, and thank you for making today’s events possible. It is my sincere wish that this ceremony will contribute, in some small way, to enriching our understanding of some of the complexities of our history.
And now it is my great pleasure to dedicate this grave of Sergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan V. C.