Embracing our diaspora - How can we honour the forgotten?

One hundred years ago today, Dave Gallaher died at the Battle of Passchendaele. He was born in Donegal in 1873. 

His father was a shopkeeper, his mother a teacher, so the family was hardly uncomfortable. When Dave was five years old, the family emigrated to New Zealand where his mother Maria again taught; she died in 1887 leaving 11 children.

So far this family’s story seems representative of the ordeal faced by many Irish emigrant families a century and a half ago.

However, Gallaher’s achievements in the country he embraced so wholeheartedly ensured he remains a heartbeat figure in New Zealand culture.

Unlike hundreds of thousands of others, he did not disappear, unknown and anonymous under the great tsunami of 19th-century emigration.

Gallaher was one of nine brothers, of whom five fought in the Great War. Three died as a consequence.

When he enlisted he said he was younger than he was, as he was too old but his Boer War experiences called him back.

That did not set him apart, but his place in history is guaranteed by his All Blacks legacy. He captained their tour in 1905 — the first NZ team to be called All Blacks, and the first to play Munster.

The hosts lost 33-0 at Limerick’s Markets’ Field. Twelve years later, he was buried at Nine Elms Cemetery, not far from

The Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines which, in a neat accident of history, seems to close a circle.

This is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission graveyard which, by insisting all ranks were buried together and with identical gravestones, symbolised the end of the serf-and-master world order that led to the First World War.

These cemeteries have become places of remembrance and, today, evaluation. In Ireland’s case, they became unexpected pathways to a more honest history.

The equality they mark — Death the Leveller — also begs another question, maybe a bigger one. How can we remember the forgotten?

How do we build and sustain good links with those who have left? In a society where emigration is as constant as rain, we may be inured to this cutting away.

But, in an ever-more volatile world, we should do more to turn the idea of the diaspora into the community of the diaspora.

To date we have had an exploitative, begging-bowl attitude — certificates of Irish heritage anyone? — that was at best shabby.

Maybe it’s time to devise ways to sustain links that weaken with time; maybe it’s time Ireland tried to have a more positive, inclusive and formative influence on those happy to celebrate their Irish heritage.

If we, say, offered the children of first-generation emigrants a chance to study in Irish colleges for the same fees as their Irish cousins rather than higher fees charged to non-nationals we would create positive life-long relationships.

The derided tax break for returning emigrants seems another good idea even if it was dismissed out of hand — which is another way of saying it was dismissed thoughtlessly.

If we replace huckstering with belated honouring, we would be doing the right thing. We would also unleash almost unlimited potential — and when better to do that than now, as we celebrate the decade of centenaries.


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