Diarmaid Ferriter: Powerful drama tells story of Irish soldiers at Gallipoli
‘Pals’ anchors history of British army campaign in the voices of the participants
‘For some of those “fortunate” enough to survive the horrors of warfare, another challenge remained, articulated by one of the former rugby playing soldiers in this production who cannot cope with post-war life and the memories that haunt him: “I cannot unremember”.’ Above, British troops advancing at Gallipoli, August 6th, 1915. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
As a variety of individuals and organisations continue with their plans to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising next year, a remarkably powerful commemorative drama is being played out at the National Museum of Ireland in Collins Barracks in Dublin to remember the Irish soldiers in the British army who were engaged in a very different kind of battle from the 1916 rebels. Timed to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, Pals: The Irish at Gallipoli, based on the documented experiences of some of the young men – friends from sports clubs who volunteered for “pals” brigades – who enlisted in the 7th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is a new offering from Anu Productions. It does more in 50 minutes to engage the audience in an understanding of the reality of the tortured events of 100 years ago than most academic tomes.
Pals achieves so much because it manages not just to underline the importance of doing justice to historical narratives so long submerged, but to anchor those stories in the voices of the participants. This is an exercise in history from below and is a reminder of what can be achieved by being creative and imaginative with archival material to give meaning to what is a relatively new approach to the history of this era; giving a sense, not just of what happened, but what it felt like for those involved. The placing of the cast and audience in the actual building where the men did their training gives this production an added authenticity and atmosphere.
‘I cannot unremember’
Contrast that with the excitement, sense of adventure and optimistic camaraderie that was so palpable prior to their departure; the audience watches their glee, knowing what the soldiers do not yet know about what awaits them. The result is arresting and unsettling, just as it should be, given the consequences of the journey that took them, not to France as they expected, but to Gallipoli. This was part of the military strategy to counteract the stalemate of France and Flanders by attempting to take the Turks out of the war. Ripped to shreds by machine gun and artillery fire, the Allied soldiers were swimming – and if they got to shore, sitting – ducks, and later many were shot to pieces on mountain ridges. Sunstroke, dysentery and thirst also faced those who participated in what was a disastrously organised campaign that eventually saw 140,000 allied soldiers and 250,000 Turks killed. In the words of historian Philip Orr, “today the graveyards in this part of Turkey are filled with tombstones that read like entries from an Irish street directory”.
Similar passions and conflicting interpretations are frequently evident in this country about 1916. What Pals does is to remind us of the broader context and the complex tapestry of propaganda, allegiances, motivations, sufferings, courage, fear, notions of duty, personal honour, outrage and sense of “manliness” that were a part of the Irish experience of war 100 years ago and how selective the narratives became in the aftermath.
Stephen Gwynn, the Galway nationalist MP and serving British officer, pointed out that the Irish volunteers in the British army “could only do what other regiments were doing; their deeds were obscured in the chaos of war”, in contrast to the 1916 rebels: “Pearse and his associates offered to Irishmen a stage for themselves”. Pals succeeds admirably in now offering the Irish at Gallipoli “a stage for themselves” and is a thoughtful and necessary addition to the canon of meditations on the Irish and conflict 100 years ago.
Pals: The Irish at Gallipoli runs until April 30th at Collins Barracks, Dublin. pals-theirishatgallipoli.com