When Limavady brickie Bobbie Forrest sees the Irish Peace Tower in Flanders next month, it will be no ordinary sight seeing visit.
It will be a proud and emotional moment for the 72-year-old Roe Valley tradesman who was responsible for ensuring the Tower was built in time for a royal unveiling, more than 14 years ago. It was formerly opened by the Queen, then Irish President Mary McAlesse and King Albert II of Belgium in November 1998.
Weeks before being asked to take responsibility for the Tower project, Bobbie was “at the end of his tether” on a building site in Derry.
“That was such a cold day and I remember it was pay day,” he recalled. “I told my work mates I wouldn’t be back again after lifting my wages!”
Bobbie was lucky to pick up work on a new hospital project in Coleraine the next day, taking up a post immediately. A fortnight later, his boss asked to see him.
“I didn’t know what he wanted and I went up at lunchtime,” said Bobbie. “He asked me if I wanted to go to Belgium to build a Peace Tower. My reply was “Try to stop me!”
Next month, as part of a North East PEACE III funded project Bobbie will return to the site of his legacy, and he can painstakingly recall how much effort it required.
“Five and a half months of sleepless nights, and blood sweat and tears went into it,” he said. “Just to think about the sacrifice the 36th Ulster Division and the Redmondites made together, it just puts everything that is happening right now into perspective. A village in Belgium was liberated because people with completely different backgrounds had each other’s backs.”
Bobbie’s interest in contributing to the project traces back to his own father’s military history.
“My father was just 17-years-old when he joined the war effort,” he said. “His parents died when he was young and two aunts looked after him. He was hospitalised a couple of times, and when he came home, he learned both his aunts had died from the Spanish flu. Every time I asked him about the war he got teary eyed. He told me not to ask him about it.”
Limavady Community Cohesion Officer Hollie Brown is delighted Bobbie will travel to Messines.
“This will be the first time that he has completed the ‘Messines Experience’ delivered by International School for Peace Studies. Bobbie has a wealth of knowledge and photographs of the building of the Tower and clearly this has been an important part of his life,” said Ms Brown. “I can’t wait to see and hear more from him, and to share it with his local townspeople and participants borough-wide. I feel privileged that Bobbie applied and is able to add so much to this important peacebuilding experience.”
The project is funded by the European Union’s PEACE III Programme which is managed on behalf of the Special EU Programmes Body by the North East PEACE III Partnership. A group from Limavady will take part in the Messines Experience next month.