There is a wonderful moment in the final scene of Frank McGuinness’s iconic play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme, when the young Ulster soldiers, about to go ”˜over the top’ on the morning of 1st July 1916, start discussing the rival merits of the rivers of Ulster ”“ the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann. Then they suddenly realise that they are standing there near another river, the River Somme, and the discussion becomes more excited and excitable. One of the soldiers calls out that now the Somme is the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann. This river, the Somme, is now theirs. The Somme has somehow become a river of Ulster.
Few images could more perfectly encapsulate that connectedness between the Somme and Ulster. For many people of that province, the Somme and Ulster have, for a hundred years, belonged together in the imagination of succeeding generations. This connectedness is something we celebrate today, but we do more.
The Somme, the Lagan, the Bann, the Foyle all need to recall what a river is, and what rivers are. They flow, they change, or they are no longer rivers but stagnant pools. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus reminds us that one can never step twice into the same river. It is not the same river because of the flow of water. We think of a river as forever the same and, in many respects, this may be so, but the river does not remain entirely the same. As we recall with thankfulness and even awe, those young men who, one hundred years ago, chose to join up and come to this place for what they believed was a righteous cause and where so many of them died, we do them no service if we do not relate them to today and to our hopes and prayers and aspirations for the future.