A Most Distinguished Visitor

I sat applying nail polish with exaggerated care. The care was exaggerated on two counts; first, I don’t wear it often and paint fingers as well as nails, and second, we were on a ferry. It wasn’t moving and it should have been; the second coat of polish was to distract me from that fact. Ten minutes after it should have and ten minutes before we were due to be at the far side of the far peninsula we finally got underway. Still at least the wind hadn’t cancelled the crossing completely.

We were the third car off the ferry and first on the road to Eceabat. From there we pushed (ok, completely broke) the speed limit on the deserted road across the Gallipolli peninsula. The last stretch to the hotel seemed longest but we arrived into a nearly-deserted carpark and parked beside a car with diplomatic plates. The hotel was quiet, next to a dilapidated camping ground, paint peeling and sand blown in dust devils. It didn’t look suitable for a presidential lunch.

Directed by a group of men sprouted coils of wire from their ears we made our way through an empty restaurant to a temporarily-enclosed veranda beyond. It was filled with tables of pale Irish people, made paler by grey hair in most cases. Offered a table close to the centre of the room we declined and headed for one off to the side, acutely aware that we’d brought, by special dispensation, the only children with us.

For the first time in Çanakkale I saw a priest in collar, at a far table. A nearby table was filled with military men in full uniform, but with the insignia not of the Turkish military but of the Irish Army on their caps. The familiar symbol instantly brought me back to my Granny’s house, where the insignia hung on the wall for years, carved in wood by my Grandad. Eventually he presented it to the Curragh barracks and I hope it still hangs there.

President McAleese at a lunch on the Gallipolli Peninsula

There was a flurry of activity, later than our speedy drive necessitated, and the top table arrived. President McAleese looked diminutive and elegant, not the least wind-swept among a group including the Governor and Minister Martin Mansergh. First the Governor of Çanakkale spoke, a short speech that listed the tourist attractions of the state before finishing with Ataturk’s famous words about the fallen in Gallipolli. Then President McAleese, the first Irish president to visit Turkey, was introduced by a Turk who repeatedly mispronounced her name.

Her speech wasn’t long either, but it was from the heart. She spoke about the devastation of the campaign, the cost to the victor and the defeated. She talked about how Gallipolli is overshadowed in the minds of Irish people by the Somme, though 4,000 Irish men died here. She said for the Irish it became a story lost, suppressed and neglected.

The children were tensely quiet through both speeches but relaxed once the lunch began. Little Boy Blue eventually went exploring, thankfully out towards the garden, and made friends with some soldiers. He even stood to attention for them. We chatted with embassy staff, a nice couple from Donegal expanding their knowledge of WWI from France to Turkey, a very friendly woman who worked for the Minister, overseen by the Detective Inspector presiding at the top of our table.

Dessert was barely served before the top table rose to leave. I went to try and take President McAleese’s photo as she left but was foiled by a camera that refused to focus. I got some nice shots of the ceiling, my skirt and the President’s Deputy Secretary though.

She would go on to Anzac Cove and lay a plaque in Green Hill cemetery near Suvla Bay where most of the Irish who died on Gallipolli are buried. Everyone else piled onto their buses to continue their tour of Gallipolli. And we headed back to the ferry at a more stately pace.