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President Higgins to join William and Kate at Battle of the Somme memorial

The battle began on 1 July 1916.

PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins and Minister Heather Humphreys are set to attend commemorations in France to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

It is estimated that 50,000 Irish men were killed while serving in the British, Commonwealth or United States armies during the four years of World War I.

A ceremony will take place tomorrow at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which was built between 1928 and 1932 to honour the 72,195 UK and South African soldiers whose bodies were never recovered following the battle.

The monument was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the Irish National War Memorial in Islandbridge, Dublin.

The President will meet the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and British Prime Minister David Cameron when he arrives. Several members of the British royal family, including Prince Charles, his wife Camilla, Prince William and his wife Kate, will also be in attendance. Germany will be represented by former President Horst Köhler.

Higgins will be accompanied by his wife Sabina. Some 500 Irish citizens are expected to be among those in attendance.

Profound effect on Ireland

Humphreys, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, will lay a wreath at the Ginchy Cross in Guillemont, which stands in remembrance of the 16th Irish Division of the British Army, which entered the Battle of the Somme in September 1916.

She will also attend a special Abbey Theatre production of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which was supported by her department, at the Maison de la Culture, Amiens, this evening.

24/4/2016 1916 Easter Rising Centenary Celebrations Heather Humphreys

Speaking about the visit, Humphreys said: “The Battle of the Somme was a seismic event, which had a huge impact on the island of Ireland. Young Irish men, from north and south, took part in the epic battle, which lasted 141 days, and many of them did not make it back home.

The Somme has particular resonance in my own province of Ulster, due to the very heavy losses suffered by the 36th Ulster Division on the first day of the battle. There were more than 5,500 casualties in the 36th on 1 July 1916, including 2,000 deaths. On Friday, I will travel to the Ulster Tower to lay a wreath on behalf of the Irish government in memory of those men.”

Humphreys added that the deaths of an estimated 50,000 Irish men during the war “had a profound effect on the island of Ireland, and almost certainly had an impact on every community across the country”.

“For decades, the stories of these men went largely untold, and many of those who returned home from the Somme and other battles, felt forced to conceal their own experiences.

“The decade of commemorations has allowed us to explore some of these stories for the first time, giving those who fought and those who died their rightful place in Irish history,” she said.

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