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Imagine if Mullingar Cathedral was razed to the ground by religious or atheist fundamentalists. Imagine if St Brigids’Well was bulldozed out of existence or Belvedere House burned.In Iraq and Syria today,in the areas controlled by ISIS,a campaign of cultural genocide is underway,aimed at eradicating the cultural heritage of the Assyrian,Armenian and other Christian peoples who have lived in the region for almost as long as Christianity has existed,as well as the cultures and very existence of the Yezidi religion(some of whose followers live in Westmeath),the Shia Muslims (considered by ISIS to be heretics) and the Alawite people of Syria-an offshoot of Shia Islam.

What is happening today in Iraq and Syria is a tragedy of global proportions because it is not just Iraqi and Syrian heritage which is being destroyed -it is the heritage of all of humanity.

Historic links between Westmeath and Iraq/Syria go back some 2,000 years. Traders from Phoenicia,an Empire which covered much of modern day Lebanon and parts of Syria visited Ireland and may even have attended the great 15 day Fair which was held at the Royal Assembly Site and sacred centre of Ancient Ireland,the Hill of Uisneach.

A few centuries later the Vikings traded with the High Kings of Ireland at Lough Ennell. Coins minted in Baghdad c 800 AD,when Baghdad was one of the largest,richest and most cultured places in the world have been found in Lough Ennell. Early Christian illuminated Manuscripts from the Midlands region such as the Book of Durrow may have been influenced by similar Manuscripts produced in Syria in the 6th-7th centuies by monks of the Syriac Church. Monks from the Syrian region appear to have settled in parts of Ireland-including the Midlands,in the 7th century.

During the Crusades in the 1095-1300 Period,Christians from across Western Europe waged jihad to try and gain Christian control back over the Holy Land and other parts of the Middle East. Some of the Crusaders may have come from Ireland and the Dominicans in Mullingar raised funds locally for the Crusade campaigns. The Crusaders established short lived Christian kingdoms in areas of modern day Syria,Lebanon and Israel. The Knights Hospitallers Order established hostels to look after soldiers and pilgrims on their way to and from these kingdoms. One such hostel-known as the Frankhouse,was in Mullingar on the site of what is now the Annebrook Hotel.

In the early 20th century,new connections were established between Westmeath and Iraq/Syria when the First World War brought thousands of Irishmen serving in the British Army to what was then called Mesopotamia-modern day Iraq. In 1916-18,British forces deployed to Mesopotamia to try and drive out the Turks who had ruled the region for 400 years. Men from Westmeath’s “local ” regiment-the Leinster Regiment were involved in the fighting along the Tigris River around the city of Kut in the spring of 1916. One of the Westmeath men who saw service in the region was Private Edward Roe from Coole who was a witness to the end of Turkish rule ib Baghdad in March 1917.

As he prepared to enter the historic city,he recalled reading the “Tales of the Arabian Nights as a child and being beaten at school for having failed to do his homework because he had been reading instead about the adventures of Sinbad and of Ali Baba! Fr Bernard Farrell from Mullingar Parish served as a military chaplain in the southern Iraqi city of Basra in 1917-18 and on one occasion,he met the son of an RIC Inspector from Mullingar,who wrote to his father,telling him that,”I never thought that when I said goodbye to Father Farrell in Mullingar three years ago,we would meet on the banks of the Euphrates.”

One of the most famous military figures in the First World War was T. E Lawrence-known to history as “Lawrence of Arabia. ” He helped to lead the Arab revolt against Turkish rule across the Middle East. and was one of the first British soldiers to enter Damascus following the French and Arab capture of the Syrian capital in October 1918. Lawrence was the son of Sir Thomas Chapman of South Hill, Delvin. His Great-Uncle,Montagu Chapman was M.P for Westmeath in the 1870s and the Chapman family had lived in Westmeath since the 16th century.

After the war Lawrence helped reshape the map of the Middle East. He was one of those who could be credited with the creation of the modern nation of Iraq. Another person involved in the birth of Iraq was the archaeologist Gertrude Bell .She was a friend of Charles Howard-Bury,the owner of Belvedere House.

Westmeath born soldiers were probably among those British soldiers and airmen who served in Iraq during the 1920s,when Iraq was a British Mandate Territory. During the early years of the Mandate,the British fought against Arab Shia tribes in the south of Iraq and against the Kurdish tribes in Iraqi Kurdistan.

On November 11th,1918,Private Edward Roe from Coole was in Iraq. In the Battalion Diary which he was keeping,he noted that the end of the First World War on that day was celebrated with fireworks and Very Lights which,” lit up the sky from Mosul to Baghdad. ” A few weeks later,Roe and his comrades celebrated Christmas Day in Baghdad. Each soldier received two pints of beer. ! Basra,where British troops were based from 2003 to 2011,is a largely Shia Muslim city in the south of Iraq.

Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq and was until last year a very diverse place with a significant Christian population-including members of the ancient Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Church,which has links with the Roman Catholic Church. Since ISIS forces occupied the city last summer most Christians have fled. There are now no Christian churches operating in Mosul for the first time in 1800 years.

The Mullingar born novelist,Josephine Hart, (1942-2011) ,was married to the Conservative Party peer and Advertising Executive,Lord Maurice Saatchi. Lord Saatchi,who has visited Mullingar on a number of occasions,was born in Baghdad in 1947.His family moved to Britain in 1950. The Saatchi family belonged to the Jewish community in Iraq. Jews lived in Iraq for at least 2,500 years before being forced out by government harrassment in the 1950s and 1960s. Fewer than 100 Jews-most of them elderly were left in the country by 2003.

In his London home Lord Saatchi has a painting of his late wife’s childhood home in Mill Rd Mullingar. The painting was done by Mullingar Artist and Art teacher,May Raleigh,who was commissioned to do the work by Lord Saatchi as a birthday present for Josephine.

In the 1970s and again in the last year,soldiers from Westmeath have served as UN Peacekeepers in the Golan Heights region of Syria/Israel. Soldiers and airmen of Westmeath ancestry or with other family connections to this county served with American,British and Australian forces during the Iraq conflict 2003-2011. Iraqi citizens have worked in hospitals in the Irish Midlands Region in recent years and refugees from Iraqi/Iranian Kurdistan have lived in Westmeath since 2006.
By Ruth Illingworth ©

Editors Note : Westmeath’s Finest Soliders from Mullingar and Athlone are again stationed  in  Syria  may 2015  as part of a peace keeping Mission there .We wish them a Safe and peacefull mission while there .