Standing in a crowd, we watched as President Higgins laid a wreath at the plaque before a minute’s silence was observed. The shot of a cannon punctuated the silence, making one or two observers jump. A disgruntled tourist muttered to my right, “A commemoration for a bunch of dead people. They can’t even hear the bloody cannons, can they?”
At the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the National Day of Commemoration is held annually on the Sunday closest to July 11th, the anniversary of the signing of the truce ending the War of Independence. The day does more than recognise this anniversary however.
Intended to remember all Irishmen and Irishwomen who have died in past wars, or on service with the United Nations, the Taoiseach and President both attend and veterans or next of kin are invited back to their home to remember, together.
Entering the grounds
Sitting outside Kilmainham Gaol, I was taken off guard by the massive entourage of Gardai following a black car (evidently that of President Higgins). As the group pulled into the heavily secured Hospital, the usual home of the Modern Art Museum appeared unnerving with the heavy Garda presence.
With both the Taoiseach and President in attendance however, any and all security was justified. For all of the precautions taken however, all are invited to attend. And so, pen in one hand and notebook in the other, I trailed behind the long line of police motorcycles and nodded to the guards at the gate.
Inside the grounds, one was struck by the sheer variety of age in the veterans. From early 30s to late 70s, all in attendance held themselves with the same pride and dignity. More than that however, a kinship and respect amongst the veterans was obvious. Chatting to those in the crowd, one such veteran stood out. With a broad smile and an energy that betrayed his age, Ger Duirnan was kind enough to talk about his perspective on the proceedings of the day . “It’s a really nice opportunity to have everyone come back together,” he said.
Duirnan served with the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam, along with an estimated 2,000 other Irish natives. Serving abroad was surprisingly common for those emigrating to the U.S. Having travelled over searching for jobs in the late 60s and early 70s, the unsuspecting young men often found themselves conscripted. All that was required for conscription was to be eligible to work, and so having intended to seek a new life abroad, many found themselves deep in the Vietnam jungle, wondering if they’d bitten off more than they could chew.
For Duirnan however, the ceremony is a chance to see Irish people reunited, and he loves attending. Recalling his time in Saigon, he remembered being told of another Irishman stationed nearby. He laughed as he remembered the eagerness of the other American soldiers, and their insistence that on an island as small as Ireland, it was bound they’d know each other. As it turned out, they weren’t far off. “I didn’t know him, but it turns out we had grown up only 20 miles apart,” he chuckled.
The two quickly became close while stationed in Vietnam, and remained companions until Duirnan returned home to Ireland in 1976 while his friend remained in the U.S. In a manner only possible while looking back over a long life well lived however, Duirnan revealed an even more shocking coincidence.
Living in Carrick-on-Shannon, he was delighted to find himself and his comrade reunited in 2000, when upon his friends return to Ireland they once again found each other living only down the street from one another.
An unbreakable kinship
Duirnan attends the ceremony every year, and brings his family when he can. His daughter, evidently interested by her father’s past, collects war pins from various armed forces. “One year she was given a pin from someone who had been over in Afghanistan,” Duirnan said. “The pin had come from a medic, and had belonged to a fallen comrade she was treating.
The next year we came back, and my daughter was wearing the pin, and the couple behind us noticed. They asked us where we had gotten it, and we told them the story. That’s when we found out they had been at the funeral, and had been among the pallbearers there.”
As he finished his story, one couldn’t help but be struck by the odd connectivity of all in attendance. With little patriotism in me, and even less of a belief in a spiritual connectedness, there was yet an undeniable bond between those in attendance, and a seemingly unstoppable magnetism of like attracting like.
Regardless of where these men and women were stationed, their story upon story of discovered Irish companionships persisted. In line with this, what Duirnan likes most about the ceremony is how it recognises soldiers from all over Ireland. “It commemorates Irish soldiers from the north and from the south of the island. There’s no division,” he said.
In line with this, the ceremony had representatives from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths all present to lead an act of the commemoration, in accordance with their own tradition. The respect and recognition given to all present was outstanding, but in recognising these differences, there was no detraction from the kinship that permeated the atmosphere. Above all, these were people who had (in most cases) chosen to serve abroad and had come through the other side, united by their experience but more, their Irishness.
As Duirnan bid me farewell, he left to join his family and friends for a cup of tea. In the now quiet central square, the last few soldiers in attendance filed out of the plaza and I wandered the grounds of the once again-peaceful Royal Hospital.
Seeing the trail of cars as the veterans separated for another year, it was hard not wonder if and when they’ll run into each other again. The ceremony goes a long way in facilitating their continued communication, and yet even without, it seemed nothing would keep those comrades apart.