Story Ulster Gazette:
Hundreds of Northern Ireland football fans attend poignant service
BESSBROOK man Stephen Kennedy conducted a service of remembrance on behalf of several hundred Northern Ireland football supporters at the Somme village of Thiepval in France last Sunday.
Stephen, assistant minister of Hill Street Presbyterian Church in Lurgan, is in France with his father Danny Kennedy, the Ulster Unionist MLA, and uncles and cousins from Portadown and Armagh and he was invited by the Amalgamated of Northern Ireland Supporters’ clubs to officiate at a short service.
Several hundred Northern Ireland fans, including members of the Milford and Armagh supporters clubs, made the emotional 170-mile pilgrimage to the iconic First World War battle site where 5,000 Ulstermen died a century ago.
Stephen Kennedy said: “There was a huge amount of blood and much of it was Ulster blood. Soldiers decided that they would lay down their lives for our freedom. They literally numbered their days to secure our future.
“Meeting here today is both an honour and a privilege. One hundred years ago this area would have been completely unrecognisable. There was a huge amount of blood spilled, most of which was Ulster blood.
“It’s so important to remember this sacrifice. But I would want to suggest to you today that there was an even more significant sacrifice than this. Jesus sacrificed Himself so that we might be rescued,” said Stephen.
“The Bible and the Gospel calls us to think through these things. The question for us today is what would it profit us if our team did well at the Euros? What would it profit us if we had a great time and party in France but we lost our own soul? Jesus would call us all to trust in Him, because only through Him can true security and fulfilment be found.”
The supporters all solemnly joined in the prayerful and dignified ceremony at the impressive stone memorial complete with a piper’s lament.
The Ulster Tower near the Somme was built on land gifted by a grateful French government for the ill-fated attack British troops made against overwhelming German defensive lines. Curator of the Ulster Tower is Teddy Colligan, a Bessbrook man.
Teddy told the supporters of a close relative from Bessbrook Jimmy Chambers, an Irish international and Bury player who played as outside-right alongside the great Linfield centre-forward Joe Bambrick in 1930 when he scored a record six goals against Wales.
After the ceremonies, some of supporters played a football match against a local French town team.
Jim Spratt, committee member of the Amalgamation of Northern Irish Supporters’ Clubs, said: “We are here supporting Northern Ireland and we are doing them proud. These men did the world proud and we need to all remember that.”
Danny Kennedy MLA said: “It was an honour and a privilege to attend the Remembrance Service at the Ulster Tower, Thiepval organised by the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs.
“It is always important to remember the service and sacrifice of our fellow countrymen who never returned from ‘the green fields of France’.
“I am thrilled that so many Northern Ireland fans have taken the time to pause and reflect at the battlefields in Northern France, before continuing to support our team in the European Championships”
The 36th Ulster Division’s initial attack near the Somme village of Thiepval was a success, but the force could not hold territory gained.
At least 2,200 were confirmed dead during days of carnage involving faulty bombs and with failed communications, guides said. Their shells landed on their own men and even the prevailing wind blew the gas back towards them.
Messengers carrying orders from headquarters to the front lines to retreat were killed and the troops never received them.
The fans relaxed over tea and biscuits at the Ulster Tower interpretive centre, which contains wine bottles and rusted spoons recovered from the front.
They also toured Thiepval Wood, from which Irish troops launched at times abortive attacks.