When I arrived at Dublin’s Grangegorman Military Cemetery this morning at 6 o’clock for the Anzac Day dawn service to commemorate all those who died in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, a crescent moon was rising in the east. Very appropriate, I thought. After all, the victors in that campaign were the Turks, whose national flag includes a crescent moon. Just as Australians and New Zealanders regard that campaign as of the utmost significance in the emergence of their nationhood, so too do the people of modern Turkey, whose first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the great military hero of the campaign, had defended his country from the invaders.
I am well familiar with Grangegorman Military Cemetery. I had visited it many times while researching Anzacs and Ireland. Buried there are seven Australian soldiers of the First World War and three New Zealanders. Of those, four Australians and two New Zealanders died when the RMS Leinster, the mailboat from Dublin to Holyhead, was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast, just one month before the end of the war, with the loss of more than 500 lives. I had written about those soldiers in the book.
For Australians and New Zealanders, the 25th of April, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli is the main focus of their national commemorations of their countrymen who died in that campaign and in other military conflicts. Thousands of Irishmen also died at Gallipoli, but they have largely been forgotten in Ireland.
While the antipodean nations along with the Turks see the Gallipoli campaign as the crucible of their nations, for the Irish it is the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence (1919-1921). After the Irish had won their independence and established their state in 1922, their nation-building understandably focussed on the struggle for independence, not the part that Irish soldiers had played in what many regarded as “England’s war”. In recent years attitudes have changed. Ireland is now a mature, confident nation state and its people are increasingly looking back to that war and giving recognition to the sacrifice made by the more than 35 000 Irishmen who died fighting for what they believed was a righteous cause.
That recognition was evidenced today by the presence at the ceremony of more than 200 people, mostly Irish, including the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan and representatives of the Defence Forces of Ireland.
To me, today’s service in Dublin was extra special as I had been given the honour of delivering the Anzac Day address. It gave me, as an Australian of Irish descent, the opportunity to pay regard to the part played by the Irish in the war, particularly the more than 6000 Irish men and women who served in the Australian forces and the more than 900 who were killed or died of wounds or illness related to their war service. Among them were thirteen Irishmen who, wearing the Australian uniform, were killed on the day of the landing at Gallipoli 99 years ago today. And to underline the personal tragedy which is the nature of war, I recited the name, age, occupation and birthplace of each of them. I was delighted afterwards by the number of Irish people who took the trouble to speak with me and to commend me for having done so and for having spoken about the part played by the Irish in the war.
As the rising sun broke through the trees overlooking the graves at Grangegorman and cast its light and warmth on this cold place, I concluded my address with the following words:
Mindful that the loss of life in war is “always personal, always tragic, and always has consequences”,* it is right that we remember the individual men and women killed in the war and their families left with long mourning and deep grief. In that way, we commemorate our war dead, not to glorify their deeds, for there is no glory in war, but to see them as our father, our mother; our brother, our sister; our son, our daughter, whose life was precious, and then to echo Pope Paul’s exhortation to the UN: “No more war, war never again”.
(* Michael McKernan, Gallipoli, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2010)