Belfast Cenotaph (at the side of the City Hall) is currently hosting an art installation of 3775 shrouded figures; the number of servicemen from the Ulster and Irish regiments who died in the Somme and have no known grave. This is the work of artist Rob Heard, who individually cut and stitched each shroud, to a specific name. Remarkably, the exhibition in Belfast is only part of a larger exhibition of 72 396 figures which will be on display in London in November, to mark the centenary of Armistice Day.
My first reaction was to be taken by the sheer volume of shrouded figures lining the cenotaph. This is only the servicemen whose bodies were not recovered at the Somme; nearly 150 000 Allied soldiers were killed alongside over 160 000 German soldiers. Despite the scale of the installation, this is a relatively small number from one battle, and a drop in the ocean in the context of the whole war.
When I stopped to look at an individual figure however, or a small group, my thoughts changed from the enormity of the slaughter, to the individuality of each life. Each figure is jointed; when it is shrouded, it twists and bends into a shape as unique as the space each one left behind. A gap felt by parents, siblings, wider family, a circle of friends. Each person left a dent in a pillow they never came home to, a seat at the dinner table, the liking for a particular food, a catchphrase, the way they sneezed, and a thousand other personal idiosyncrasies that pleased or irritated those around them.
These were Irish lives, and yet they should not simply be our remembrance. They were part of something bigger; thousands upon thousands of lives sacrificed to the god of empire. They are humanity’s remembrance. Every war belongs to all of us who have oxygen in the blood and a mind to remember.
Sitting on a bench at the side of the cenotaph, I was struck by the need to remember both past and future. What is within my gift to help prevent this happening again? What can I contribute that may prevent the taking of life? Or, asked in a more positive way, what is within my gift to allow other people to live a full life? This is not about the lessening of violence, building bigger walls or tighter security checks, this is about the surrendering of one perspective as right and true. This is about depth of understanding, acceptance and, where possible, the celebration of difference.
There is no them, there is only us.
The display will be in Belfast until 16thSeptember; you can find out more at www.shroudsofthesomme.com