We can learn from Australia on remembering war dead
History was my favourite subject when I was in secondary school in Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co Limerick.
I have no doubt that this was largely due to the enthusiasm of a wonderful teacher named Noel O'Shaughnessy – or Mr O as he was better known among those of us who enjoyed his free-flowing narrative style of tuition, under which even double classes flew by as he transported us to the life of some ancient character or far-flung battlefield.
Indeed, it was his earnestness, enthusiasm and direction that inspired my first career objective - solving the Northern Ireland problem.
By the time I hit college, I had reluctantly come to realise that the North was more a situation to be handled than a problem to be solved and I switched my attention to the somewhat simpler world of science.
Before visiting Australia, I had of course heard of Anzac Day, but actually observing a couple of the day's services made me think of those of my own family that I know of who have lost their lives in war and made me somewhat envious of the way this is marked in Australia.
We were staying in an apartment on Trinity Beach on the northern suburbs of Cairns for Anzac Day. While we had heard there was to be a dawn service locally, it is a small area, so we assumed that it could be a piddling event and we would be better off going downtown.
But driving out of our car park before 5.30am, there were already large numbers of people quietly making their way to the war memorial on the esplanade, almost as if drawn by some indiscernible force. So we parked up and joined them.
We consequently found ourselves in the midst of a simple, dignified, powerful, non-political event, unlike anything I have experienced.
Based on the format of a service still used by the military to this day and led by a clergyman, it was very powerful and stirring; not about glorification of war, but respect for those who gave their lives for others.
It seems to be organised from the bottom up rather than top down, which I think is probably intrinsic to its operation and young people played a central role.
The national anthem was led by a local primary school choir (all of whom seemed to know the words), a girl a little older read a poem and several children were proudly wearing their grandfather's medals.
The tropical skies opened as light crept into the skyline. It somehow seemed to add to the import and mood of the occasion. Nobody ran for cover. Those lucky enough to have umbrellas put them up.
A stranger gave us tourists a spare and when Robin went to return it as the gathering was naturally breaking up amid the persistent rain, he generously dismissed the offer with "nah, you're alright, mate".
For those who, like me, know little of the Anzacs, it refers to the Australian and New Zealand army corps. The term was coined in 1915 when military personnel were part of the Allied expedition that set out to capture Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman empire and an ally of Germany, to open the way to the Black Sea and Russia for the allied navies.
They landed at Gallipoli on April 25 in what was supposed to be a bold raid, but it quickly became stalemate, with massive losses on both sides.
In December, the Allied forces were finally evacuated, so the campaign was a failure, but it subsequently resulted in the recognition of the Anzac spirit and legend which continues to be honoured as an important part of the national identity of both countries.
The death toll in Gallipoli included 21,255 British Army servicemen, 10,000 from France, 8,709 from Australia and 2,721 from New Zealand. The Gallipoli campaign remains largely unknown in Ireland yet an estimated 3,000 of our countrymen died there.
An estimated 50,000 Irish died in World War I and this year marks the centenary of its outbreak yet it is passing largely unnoticed.
War is in all of our histories yet it is rarely spoken about, even among families. Some joined up for adventure, often signing up with friends, others out of a sense of duty and still others, less romantically, to ensure a steady source of income for their families as military life offered a guaranteed income.
And what about the vast numbers of Irish who died in other conflicts, including on both sides of the American Civil War?
Yet the Easter Rising remembrances grow in popularity year on year and you can be sure that there will be a rush to take ownership of the occasion when its centenary comes around.
Of course, it is simpler in Australia. It is a relatively young country and the vast majority who have died in battle have all been on the same side, in defence of the Crown, which a lot of people in Ireland have long seen as an occupying force.
Our story includes episodes of not just neighbour against neighbour, but brother against brother.
Thus, I was well pleased to see that President Higgins has stuck his head above the parapet, as it were, to say that it is time we honoured our dead of WWI, pointing out the importance of recognising the suffering and loss of those terrible years.
At the Anzac commemoration service I attended, the national anthem of Turkey was sung alongside Advance Australia Fair.
We too need to find a way to live in the present while looking to the future, but accepting a variety of pasts; to recognise our war dead as just that, not who or why they fought.
This is about Anglo-Irish relations, but its about more. We need to forge our own intrinsically Irish approach.
I have no doubt that there are plenty of Australians who are not fussed about Anzac Day and also recognise that the changing ethnic composition of the population will have an impact.
For now, though, it remains a powerful occasion for the country and offers a valuable message for those who want to listen.
The Anzac dawn service traditionally heads to its conclusion with The Ode, taken from a poem written in 1913, and now considered a tribute to all who casualties of war, regardless of their nation.
They shall not grow old
As we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.
- Ann Fitzgerald can be contacted at email@example.com
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