Spirit of killed Major kept alive as Redmond's pub thrives near Flanders grave

A Belgian barman with more than a hint of an Irish accent is keeping the memory of Major Willie Redmond alive in a pub named in his honour.

Redmond's sits on a corner in the quiet village of Loker, a short walk from the graveside of the Irish nationalist who died fighting for the British Army at the age of 56 on the first day of the Battle of Messines.

Landlord Franky Vanacker, 47, was also a key figure in the project to build an Irish round tower at nearby Messines to honour those Irishmen, from both traditions, who fought and died alongside each other in this corner of Flanders Fields 100 years ago this week.

"The idea behind the pub was to bring some Irish soul over here and the ideal link was already an Irish fellow who was here lying in the gardens," he said.

Redmond, whose brother and fellow MP John was the leader of the nationalist Home Rule movement in Ireland, was based at Loker with the rest of the 16th Irish Division ahead of the Battle of the Messines Ridge.

The 36th Ulster Division was billeted in the nearby village of Dranouter. In the hours before the June 7 battle the two divisions met up and marched along the same road to the front.

At Loker, Redmond had become friendly with the local nuns and those relationships led to his body being buried in what was then the garden of the convent.

The Mother Superior requested his remains be sent from the 36th Ulster's dressing station at Dranouter, where he had died of wounds sustained in No Man's Land, to the convent for burial.

The convent was rebuilt after the war around 300 yards away from its original site - the reason Redmond's grave now stands in isolation at the end of a narrow grass pathway close to a Commonwealth Cemetery and on the edge of a farmer's field.

In the 1960s, the grave had become unkempt and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission decided to rebury Redmond in an official war cemetery.

But a local priest intervened, mounting a public campaign to keep his remains where the nuns had laid him.

The commission finally relented, ensuring Redmond will forever be buried alone on a Flanders hillside on a now well-maintained site.

It is a story retold thousands of times inside Redmond's, which is a popular stop for Irish visitors who come to the village in search of the grave.

Mr Vanacker first visited Ireland 30 years ago and lived there for a number of years in the 1990s.

"I didn't know anything about Ireland - north or south - so if you told me penguins walked down lanes over there I would've believed you," he said.

"And it was just by going that I lost all the ideas of Ireland and I was discovering the reality."

Business was never better in Redmond's than in the 10 months of 1998 when groups of young people from different traditions in Ireland came to the area to help build the Island of Ireland Peace Park.

The park, with its landmark round tower, commemorates all those Irishmen who fell during the First World War.

"The pub became a bit of an office for them," Mr Vanacker joked.

"I have a lot of good memories. We were discovering the people and the intentions around the tower - there were highlights in the evenings.

"In those 10 months we had discussions and big ideas. There was also sad times.

"When we were building the tower with people from north and south there was the bomb attack at Omagh (August 1998, when the Real IRA killed 29 in the Co Tyrone town).

"That was a sad period, that whole week, because these guys and girls who were over were here with one intention - to bring out some new spirits.

"And then that bombing came and we were not so clear about the future at that moment."


 

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