Monday 24 June 2013

Paying Respects

At 6am on the 25th April last I left my house in Dublin and drove through the pouring rain to Grangegorman Military Cemetery.  Along with perhaps 200 other people, I stood by the graves of soldiers who died in the First World War and listened as the Australian Ambassador to Ireland, the deputy New Zealand High Commissioner from London, a representative from the Turkish Embassy in Dublin and members of the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces read poems and prayers.  We sang Abide With Me and a musician from the Irish Defence Forces played the Last Post.

As I stood there with rain trickling down my neck and a tear or two trickling down my face, a somewhat more detached part of me was wondering why I was there.  Why had I felt compelled to visit this military gravesite when I am, after all, a pacifist?  One, furthermore, who finds that many military memorial services tread on the wrong side of the fine line between remembering and glorifying war.

The date is a clue.  25th April is ANZAC Day, the anniversary of the day when an ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli, part of modern-day Turkey.  In Australia, the day is almost (if not as) important as Australia Day and the traditions of dawn services and wearing sprigs of rosemary for remembrance are well established.

For me the day was an opportunity to pay my respects - in the truest sense.  For nearly three years I was responsible for curating a new Australian museum - one that deals with a seminal event in Australian history.  It seemed (and still seems) to me to be a great responsibility and privilege to have been given.  And in as much as I was entrusted with this responsibility, I feel a sense of obligation to respect and care for Australia's history and cultural icons.  I don't know how it is that seven Australian and three New Zealander soldiers came to be buried in Dublin, but I feel an odd sense of responsibility - hospitality? - towards them now.

Having attended the dawn service in April, I resolved to come back to spend a little more time at the cemetery.  Last Sunday found me wandering through the neat rows of graves.

Mapless, it took a little while to locate them - but eventually I spotted the distinctive 'rising sun' emblem of the Australian Army on a stone.


I can see why that fine line between remembering and glorifying gets crossed, by way of sentimentality.  It's hard not to sentimentalise, to wish I could somehow tell Muriel that I had visited her dearly loved husband's grave, to tell her that his last resting place was a green and peaceful part of a friendly city.

The war Joe Barnes and his comrades fought for may remain incomprehensible to me (and lest sentimentality take over, let's not forget that the Gallipoli Campaign was pretty well a disaster for the Allies from soup to nuts) but I can still honour them.  In fact, I think the root cause of my grave visits was a distinctly biblical sentiment: your people shall be my people.  I may have decided not to settle in Australia for good, but there is a little part of me that shall forevermore be Australian.

Or as I occasionally find myself saying, Austrylian.

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