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Cardinal Norman Gilroy and Anzac Day

Posted by Frank FitzGerald on 25 April 2018
Cardinal Norman Gilroy and Anzac Day

It may not be a broadly known fact, but Cardinal Gilroy - the first Australian born head of the Church in this country - was closely associated with Anzac Day in a number of ways.


Firstly he was present - as a serviceman [prior to him joinging the priesthood] - at Galipolli on April 25th 2015, as this account relates:

Gilroy had volunteered for the armed services as a telegraphist. He was appointed Junior Wireless Officer to the transport ship Hessen which, with some of the First Light Horse Regiment and their horses, left Melbourne in January 1915, bound for Alexandria. Throughout the voyage he kept a detailed diary which gives a good insight into his youthful understanding of the 1915 campaigns.(37) In April they sailed to Turkey for the Dardanelles assaults, for which the Hessen was one of forty transport ships. On the eve of the landing he marvelled at the laconic demeanour of the officers who would lead the landing:

Though they are so near to the, perhaps, most eventful and dangerous period
of their lives, our military officers appear to be quite unconcerned. At
tea tonight they were talking quite as lightly, and arguing as freely, as
though they were travelling on a passenger liner thousands of miles from
the danger zone.(38)

Although just an off-shore observer of the landings of April 25, he gained a sense of the seriousness of the campaign, since the Hessen remained in the landing zone for about three weeks and was exposed to shell fire. He was aware of the great number of warships and transports and some of the human costs:

[A] big hospital ship brilliantly illuminated with a green band around the
hull, and a Red Cross amidships steamed by, travelling South, evidently
carrying some of the unfortunate patriots who had sacrificed their lives
for their country's sake while we looked on from the deck of our ship in
comparative safety, selfishly satisfied to let others do the hard and risky

He also commented that `it surprised most of us uninitiated in military tactics why such a difficult position was chosen to effect the landing, when, at each side of the hills was flat country'.(40) Overall, it was a formative experience, as he reflected four decades later:

There came to me a realisation of the little control men have over their
own lives. On the hills beyond that hospital ship were tens of thousands of
men on opposing sides. The opponents were quite unknown to each other; they
have never seen, much less injured, one another ... The lunacy of it all
was appalling.(41)

In May the ship was ordered back to Alexandria, then to England, and finally back to Australia where he arrived on 8 October and returned to work with the Post Office.

The few weeks in the Dardanelles were the closest Gilroy came to the fighting and carnage of the war, although the danger from U-boats was very serious, especially in the waters near England. It was a very limited Anzac experience and he was aware of this as will be indicated below. Nevertheless, it was a very real association with the original Anzac events and one which few other religious leaders could claim, especially the Irish Catholic bishops of other dioceses. A month after Gilroy's accession as archbishop the diocesan weekly, the Catholic Press, began to serialise his War Diary of 1915, selecting in particular his descriptions of the Anzac landings.(42)


Up until the early 1960's, Anzac Day ceremonies served to divide rather than express unity when it came to prayers as part of the commemoration services in and around Sydney. For some reason the Catholic ex servicemen were not comfortable with the Prayer format of the General Remembrance Services and would separate from their RSL comrades to take part in "approved Catholic prayers" at a different venue.

Cardinal Gilroy became increasingly concerned with this practice and worked with others to establish a form of prayers that would be acceptable to all returned servicemen.  The first of these combined services took place in Sydney in 1962.

Click here for a full account of Cardinal Gilroy's role in Anzac Day

Author: Frank FitzGerald
Tags: Identity

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