Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Celebrating Greek Independence Day

Bishop Germanos raises the Greek flag on 25 March 1821in the Monastery of Agia Lavra

Patrick Comerford

Today (25 March) is both a national holiday in Greece, marking Greek Independence Day, and a religious holiday as the Feast of the Annunciation. Today, there will be a school parade in every Greek town and village and a major parade in Athens.

The revolution against the Turkish occupation began on 25 March 1821 when Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag in the Monastery of Aghia Lavra in Peloponnese.

The rallying call of the Greek people was “Freedom or Death” as the War of Independence continued for nine years. Key leaders in the Greek struggle for independence included a number of heroic Irishmen, including General Sir Richard Church from Cork, who commanded the Greek army, and Sir Charles Napier from Celbridge, Co Kildare, who was the British resident (governor) on the island of Kephalonia, where he used his office to assist the Greek cause.

At the end of April 1825, Ibrahim Pasha began the siege of Messolongi, a town in central Greece. Finally, on the night of 10/11 April 1826, the defenders of the town, exhausted and starved by the 12-month siege, attempted a desperate and at heroic effort to break out of Messolongi.

The death at Messolongi of the poet Lord Byron, who had once been Napier’s guest in Argostoli on Kephalonia, inspired many more European liberals and radicals to rally to the cause of Greece.

The Treaty of London was the first official international act acknowledging Greece as an independent state, and in 1829 a small part of modern Hellenic state was declared an independent nation.

Corfu and the other Ionian islands only became part of the modern Hellenic state in 1864 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1864, the Ionian Islands were incorporated into Greece, and in 1881 parts of Epirus and Thessaly became part of Greece. Crete, the islands of the Eastern Aegean, such as Samos, and Macedonia, including Thessaloniki, were added in 1913, and Western Thrace in 1919.

But it was not until after World War II that the Dodecanese islands, including Rhodes and Symi, were also returned to Greece.

The nine syllables of the rallying cry of the Greek struggle for independence – Ελευθερία ή θάνατος (Freedom or Death) – are reflected in the nine blue and white stripes on the Greek flag, the Greek Square in the upper left-side of the flag symbolises the respect and the devotion of the Greek people for the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Greek National Anthem consists of the first two verses of the Hymn to Freedom (Ὕμνος εἰς τὴν Ἐλευθερίαν), a poem written by Dionysios Solomos in a single month, May 1823, in Zakynthos.

This is the world’s longest hymn and the only national anthem to extol freedom. Solomos identifies Greece with Freedom and extols her in words she has never heard before. He also endows the personification of Freedom with flesh and bones, and addresses her in the second person singular.

In 1828, Solomos’ friend Nicholas Mantzaros from Corfu set the poem to music, based on folk themes. The Hymn to Freedom was adopted as the Greek national anthem in 1865, after the union of the Ionian Islands, including Zakynthos, Kephalonia and Corfu, with Greece. Σε γνωρίζω από την κόψη
του σπαθιού την τρομερή,
σε γνωρίζω από την όψη
που με βία μετράει τη γη.

Απ’ τα κόκκαλα βγαλμένη
των Ελλήνων τα ιερά,
και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη,
χαίρε, ω χαίρε, Ελευθεριά!

There are many translations into English, and in 1918 Rudyard Kipling rendered the anthem in these words:

We knew thee of old,
O, divinely restored
By the lights of thine eyes,
And the light of thy Sword.

From the graves of our slain,
Shall thy valour prevail,
As we greet thee again,
Hail, Liberty! Hail!

The Greek community in Ireland is celebrating Greek Independence Day this week with a reception, and then on Saturday there is a special Greek community dinner.