From Gallipoli to the GPO – remembering sacrifice on Anzac Day
There can be few more peaceful graveyards in Dublin than Grangegorman Military Cemetery on Blackhorse Avenue.
Opened by the British in the 1840s, the remains of over 100 soldiers who died on Dublin’s streets in 1916 are interred there, as well as the military victims of Ireland’s greatest maritime disaster, the sinking of the RMS Leinster weeks before the end of the World War II.
Here too, the grave of one Irishman who charged with the Light Brigade in Crimea.
It was other victims who perished at the beginning of last century’s conflict that we were remembering in this week’s evocative dawn ceremony, blessed by late spring sunshine.
No-one knows precisely how many Irish died in Gallipoli, and in the years after the disastrous engagement it seemed no one really cared either.
They left as heroes in 1915, but returned as pariahs to an Ireland transformed by the Easter Rising.
At the time the most celebrated reference to their sacrifice was a derisive one. “Better to die/ ‘neath an Irish sky/ than at Suvla or Sedd el Bahr”, the words of the Foggy Dew reflecting popular attitudes at the time to those slaughtered in the Suvla Bay landings.
For nearly a decade now Anzac Day has been marked by this dignified little ceremony on Blackhorse Avenue, attended by representatives of the Australian and New Zealand military, as well as an envoy from the Turkish embassy, enemies a century ago now reconciled.
Indeed there can be no more moving expression of the closure of the wounds of Gallipoli than the words of Ataturk – the Turkish commander who went on to lead his country.
“You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries,” he said. “Wipe away your tears – your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace…..having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”
The parallels between Gallipoli and the events of 1916 here are intriguing. Both doomed military adventures, each engagement became in its own way an unlikely crucible in which nations were forged.
Just as Australia and New Zealand saw their national identities emerge from the bloodshed, Turkey saw the emergence of the leader who would meld the competing strands into what became the nation we now know in Kemal Ataturk.
The part 1916 played in nation building here seems more straightforward now, but at the time, predictions that the Rising might lead to independence would have been laughed to scorn.
Contemporary references to Gallipoli as “ever to be to the Irish race a place of glorious pride and sorrow” vividly illustrate how history takes unexpected turns.
And as Professor Jeff Kildea noted in a thought provoking address to the dignitaries and ex service men and women, links of time join the two events too.
As the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landings was marked on the battlefield, rebels in the GPO were consolidating their positions after 24 hours.
Just as Irishmen fought in British uniforms – they served under Anzac colours too.
Jeff Kildea name-checked 13 of them, a baker’s dozen hailing from Cork, Dublin, Belfast and Donegal – all of them in search of a new life in Australia, all of them signing up, and dying alongside their countrymen in Anzac Cove and Cape Helles, just 13 of the 900 Irish-born servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice in Australian uniforms.
The memory of Gallipoli, a military disaster that nearly ended Churchill’s career, was for decades downplayed in Britain, but after a hundred years its resonance for Ireland has never been stronger.
Those echoes ought to be clearly heard in next year’s centenary commemorations.
Then, tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders will descend on what’s now a dusty Turkish peninsula; let’s hope that the sacrifice of another small nation will be reflected there too.