An Irishman's Diary

 

IN THE FILM Gallipoli(1981), Mel Gibson and Mark Lee play two young Australian sprinters who meet on the running circuit in 1914 and have contrasting attitudes to the war just begun in Europe. Archy Hamilton (Lee) is full of patriotism and wants to enlist immediately. He can’t understand why Frank Dunne (Gibson), the son of an Irish emigrant, does not share his sentiments.

Frank: Because it’s not our bloody war.

Archy: What do you mean, not our war?

Frank: It’s an English war, it’s got nothing to do with us.

Of course they enlist together anyway, and so take part in the infamous invasion that began 95 years ago this weekend, on April 25th, 1915. A military disaster, the Gallipoli campaign’s failure was later recast as heroic sacrifice by the Australians and New Zealanders who (with many British, Irish, and others) took part. For Australians in particular, it came to be seen as the birth of a nation: as which many will mark the occasion again tomorrow, Anzac Day.

But even outside Turkey – for which Gallipoli was a famous victory that inspired that country’s own fight for independence – not everyone feels the same away about the commemorations. New Zealanders complain that their part in events is sometimes overlooked. And despite its popularity there, there are those in Australia too who dispute Anzac Day’s significance.

Two years ago, former prime minister Paul Keating called the founding myth “utter and complete nonsense”: suggesting the sacrifice of 1915 stemmed from the country’s lack of self-confidence at that time. “Dragged into service by the imperial government, in an ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign, we were cut to ribbons and dispatched, and none of it in the defence of Australia,” he said.

But then, in general, war is never as neat as myth-makers would like. Consider the case of Fr Michael Bergin, one of the many whose heroics Australians will celebrate tomorrow. A Jesuit priest, Fr Bergin won a military cross posthumously for his work as chaplain and stretcher-bearer with the Fifth Light Horse Brigade. But not only was he Irish. He never so much as set foot in the country he served.

He was certainly well travelled. Born near Roscrea, Co Tipperary, he went to the Middle East as a missionary and teacher, first working in Syria, where he learned Arabic. He had moved to Cairo by January 1915 when the first Australian troops arrived there. And by the time the Aussies left for Gallipoli, he was with them, dressed in a private’s uniform.

The fate of another Irish priest, Mayoman Fr William Finn, hints at what conditions were like for the invaders. Finn died on the first day of the allied assault, while accompanying the Dublin Fusiliers ashore. According to one account, he was wounded ever before landing: shot in the arm while attempting to help drowning and injured troops.

“He managed to get ashore and crawled around the beach offering help or consolation to the wounded and dying Dublins and Munsters. In order to give absolution he had to hold up an injured right arm with his left. While he was blessing one of the men in this fashion, there was a shrapnel burst above him which blew part of his skull away.”

Fr Bergin’s campaign lasted rather longer. He did not die at Gallipoli, in fact: surviving until September when fever forced his evacuation home. Where, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, his arrival “in khaki, complete with emu feather in his slouch-hat, caused a sensation”.

Clearly, illness had not dimmed his enthusiasm for the adopted nation and in April 1916, back in Egypt, he joined Australia’s 51st Battalion at Tel-El-Kebir. He later followed it to France, and served at all its battles in Europe until October 1917 at Passchendaele, when a shell finally claimed him.

The posthumous citation praised his “unostentatious but magnificent zeal and courage”. And as the aforementioned dictionary puts it: “Though he had never seen Australia he was deeply admired by thousands of Australian soldiers, one of whom referred to him as ‘a man made great through the complete subordination of self’.” Variously interpreted, Gallipoli was a defining event not just for Anzacs and Turks. It also inspired one of the greatest of all anti-war songs: Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

In the interests of rhyme and metre, this too propagates some myths. “They gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun,” sings the narrator, for example; and if only this were true. Steel helmets would have saved many lives, had the invaders really been given them. But they were not general issue until a year later.

Also, the Suvla Bay at which Bogle has his Australians landing refers to a later amphibious assault, involving mainly British and Irish troops, in August 1915. Australians were part of that battle too, but inland. (The climactic event of the film Gallipoliis set at Suvla, and was inspired by a despatch describing the death of a young Australian infantryman “last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race . . .”). In fact, the extent of Irish losses at Suvla helped radicalise nationalist opinion in Ireland, as witnessed by another famous ballad. “Twas far better to die ’neath an Irish sky,/Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar,” goes a line from Charles O’Neill’s The Foggy Dew. A song that, by the way, commemorates events of Easter 1916, when yet another nation’s founding myth took hold.