Higgins notes ‘silence’ that hung over Gallipoli dead

President says ideas of ‘true Irishness’ led to battle victims being overlooked

On a stone memorial at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, where world leaders will gather today to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the first World War, are inscribed the words of modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

“You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries,” he said in 1934, “wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

In Istanbul on the eve of the commemorations, President Michael D Higgins invoked Atatürk's inclusive vision in recalling the "silences" that for much of the past century hung over memories of the 3,500 Irish men who died on the peninsula in western Turkey.

“It’s easy to look back now, and how are we to judge, but I think clouded versions of what true Irishness was stopped people’s agony being appreciated, stopped the separations being appreciated, the loss of life,” the President said of the Irish who fought in the assault on the Dardanelles Straits.


“In a way, Atatürk’s statement about every mother’s son being cared for in the same soil is one that we would have benefited from if it had been in the Irish consciousness.”


He recalled his own experiences of meeting veterans of the war in Co Clare; many of them, he said, “never really recovered from the war”.

By the time they returned, a struggle for independence was under way at home.

“Many of those who had served with the British army were marginalised, and a rift was opened between those who may have had poverty as their shared background.”

Speaking to members of Turkey’s Irish community, the President said the story of Gallipoli, like that of the catastrophic war itself, was one of “immense human loss and suffering, and great social cost”. It was also a story of military calculation gone wrong, causing 3,500 Irish men to lose their lives. “They may have had different motivations for fighting but few could have realised what lay in store for them or the enormous price they would pay,” he said.

“We must also acknowledge that these men were directed to inflict death and suffering as part of an ill-conceived and ill-fated invading force: Turkish soldiers fell in their tens of thousands defending their homeland, their losses heavily outnumbering the losses on the allied side.”

The President, accompanied by Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieut-Gen Conor O'Boyle, will attend the main Allied memorial today alongside heads of state and government from about 21 countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

Mr Higgins will participate in separate Turkish and French commemorations and at the Anzac memorial service at dawn on April 25th, Anzac Day.

“Today,” Mr Higgins said in Istanbul, “we pay our respects to the memory of all those men whose potential and promise were lost in Gallipoli a century ago. We do so with a new, more inclusive insight and understanding of the circumstances of the time.”


Mr Higgins joined other dignitaries last night at a dinner hosted by Turkish president

Tayyip Erdogan

. He also attended an academic conference to mark the Gallipoli centenary.

Turks mark what they call the Canakkale war on March 18 – the day in 1915 that saw the start of the main Allied naval assault on the Dardanelles Straits. Some 130,000 soldiers perished during the campaign – 87,000 of them from the Ottoman side – before the Turks finally repulsed an Allied campaign.

But it would prove to be one of the Turks’ few successes in the war. In November 1918, the Allied fleet sailed through the Dardanelles and took Istanbul without a single casualty.

Mr Higgins's visit to Turkey is also being used to promote trade between the two countries. Irish exports to Turkey were worth €445 million last year, and Mr Flanagan met business figures from both countries at a lunch hosted by Enterprise Ireland, which opened an office in Turkey last year.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is an Assistant Editor of The Irish Times