‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 4th 1914.
On this day one hundred years ago Britain declared war on Germany. It is not known for certain how many Irishmen participated in the fighting that followed until the cessation of hostilities in November 1918. At the start of the war, the British army contained 28,000 Irish-born regular soldiers and 30,000 reservists, all of whom were immediately called up. In addition, over the next four years some 148,000 men enlisted, bringing the eventual figure to over 200,000.
However, this does not include members of the officer classes, members of the British Royal Navy and fledgling Royal Air Force nor those Irish-born men who served in the Australian and New Zealand, Canadian and South African armed forces. Nor, it has been noted, does it include emigrants living in Britain who signed up and would have been accordingly listed as British. In other words, the final figure was likely to have been much higher than the 200,000 or so known Irish participants in the armed forces.
Similar uncertainty surrounds the number of Irish who died during the First World War. In the early 1920s around £5,000 of the National War Memorial fund was spent collecting records of all known deceased and publishing a list of these in an eight-volume set of Ireland’s Memorial Records. One hundred copies were produced ‘for distribution through the principal libraries of the country’ with design and decoration, printing, and binding ‘carried out by Irish artists and workers of the highest reputation and efficiency.’ The best-known contributor to this work was Harry Clarke, today primarily remembered for his stained glass. For the memorial records, Clarke created a title page and seven page borders, repeated throughout the volumes and, as Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe has commented, incorporating ‘Celtic and Art Deco motifs, battle scenes in silhouette, medals, insignia and religious and mythological scenes, all drawn in pen and ink.’ The volumes list a total of 49,435 names and this has since often been taken as an accurate figure for the number of Irishmen who died in service during the years 1914-1918. However, the list is of soldiers who died in Irish regiments, some of whom were not Irish while Irishmen who fought in non-Irish regiments are not included.
The history of Ireland’s National War Memorial Gardens has been equally chequered. In the aftermath of the Great War, although many people wished to commemorate those who had died in the preceding years, the spirit of the age proved unpropitious. In July 1919 a meeting attended by more than 100 representatives was held in Dublin at which it was agreed there should be a permanent memorial and a committee was accordingly established to raise funds for this purpose. (It was money from this source which paid for the publication of Ireland’s Memorial Records). The main veterans’ group, the Legion of Irish Ex-Servicemen – later the British Legion (Irish Free State Region) – proposed the memorial be ‘a statue, obelisk or cenotaph of exceptional beauty and grandeur, sited in some central part of the City of Dublin.’ Accordingly the memorial trustees considered buying the private gardens in the centre of Merrion Square and building a monument there before presenting the whole site to the relevant authorities for use as a public park. The scheme failed to gain sufficient support both within and outside official circles: for example, the author, wit and surgeon Oliver St John Gogarty, then a Senator, declared ‘A war memorial is a comfortless thing’ and argued the money collected should be spent on housing for ex-servicemen. The Phoenix Park was also proposed as a location and the matter dragged on until 1929 – more than a decade after the war had ended – before the government suggested a memorial park be laid out on a site already in public ownership and known as Longmeadows on the southern banks of the Liffey. The scheme embodied the idea of a public park laid out at state expense and incorporating a Garden of Remembrance funded by the Memorial Committee: the eventual cost for the entire site’s development was almost evenly split between the two. In the same vein, the workforce, drawn from the unemployed, ensured half were former First World War ex-British Army and half ex-Irish Army men. And to provide them with as much work as possible the use of mechanical equipment was restricted: even granite blocks of seven and eight tonnes were manhandled into place with primitive tackles of poles and ropes.
Ireland’s National War Memorial Gardens were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens whose mother was Irish and who had already worked in this country on several occasions, notably at Lambay Island, Howth Castle and Heywood, County Laois (for the last of these, see To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale, May 12th last). In addition, Lutyens had already been responsible for designing several other commemorative sites, not least the Cenotaph in London. He was the natural choice for this commission and responded with a plan that is graceful, reflective and dignified.
The Memorial Gardens occupy only part of a larger site developed as a public park. Responding to the Phoenix Park on the opposite side of the river Liffey, Lutyens’ intervention begins close to the water with a small domed temple. A plaque on the floor of this building carries the following lines from Rupert Brookes’ second War Sonnet:
‘We have found safety with all things undying/The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth/The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying/And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth.’
From here the design is arranged symmetrically on a north-south axis, the ground ahead gently rising to several short flights of steps that give access to the main site, with its emphasis on the Stone of Remembrance. Made from a single block of Irish granite, weighing seven and a half tons and taking the form of an altar, the stone’s dimensions are identical to First World War memorials found elsewhere around the world. Here it is in turn aligned to the Great Cross of Sacrifice which stands behind. On the cope of the wall at the cross are inscribed the words ‘TO THE MEMORY OF THE 49,400 IRISHMEN WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR, 1914-18.’ Immediately beyond further flights of steps lead to the top of the gardens.
On either side of the central stone is a broad circular basin from which rises an obelisk, sometimes compared to a candle flanking a place of worship. To either side of these are pairs of square pavilions linked by oak beam pergolas draped in clematis and wisteria. The pavilions represent the four provinces of Ireland, and contain various mementoes including a set of Ireland’s Memorial Records and the Ginchy Cross. The latter is a wooden cross of Celtic design some 13ft high and erected in 1917 as a memorial to the 4,354 men of the 16th Irish Division who died in the two engagements at Guillemont and Ginchy during the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Later replaced by a stone cross, the original was brought back to Ireland in 1926. All the structures on the site are of granite other than the site’s enclosing wall built of limestone rubble.
While the diverse built elements on the site are symbolically important, this is primarily a garden and as such one of Lutyens’ finest designs. In certain sections he deployed only a handful of plants. From the lower temple, for example, a number of paths radiate out each planted with various trees intended to provide contrast in form and colour. Some of these have had to be replanted due to age and storm damage, and in the case of the elms which were felled by Dutch Elm Disease thirty years ago, replaced altogether by lime trees. The central lawn, with its focus on the Stone of Remembrance and the Great Cross of Sacrifice, rightly contains nothing but grass, with banks of trees largely enclosing the area to the south while due to the land sloping down northwards the view is across the river to the Phoenix Park.
In contrast, beyond the paired pavilions to east and west are large sunken rose gardens that descend in terraces to circular lily ponds. Lutyens’ intention was to provide visitors with a meditative space devoid of military emblems and instead serving as a setting in which we can reflect on our mortality. Having viewed the consequences of war in the central lawn, we are now given the opportunity to consider it in a more ruminative fahion in the rose gardens. The planting of these was overseen by a committee of eminent horticulturists, including former keeper of the National Botanic Gardens Sir Frederick Moore and the assistant superintendent of the Phoenix Park A. F. Pearson. The original four thousand roses, purchased in multiples of fifty, included popular varieties such as ‘Shot Silk’, ‘Madame Butterfly’, and ‘Etoile de Hollande’ but not all have survived. Thus more recent replanting of the beds led to the inclusion of the ‘Peace’ rose produced by Meilland of France in 1945. However, it is intended that, in time, the existing roses be replaced by those varieties selected at the time of the garden’s first creation.
Incidentally, one part of Lutyens’ design was never executed: a three-arched pedestrian bridge across the Liffey providing access to the Phoenix Park. How wonderful if this were at last instated in time to mark the centenary of the First World War’s conclusion in 2018.
Although final agreement on the garden’s development was only reached in late 1933, work had already begun on its development and everything was completed by spring 1939. ‘It is with a spirit of confidence,’ declared the trustees of War Memorial Committee, ‘that we commit this noble memorial of Irish valour to the care and custody of the Government of Ireland.’ An official opening of the garden was proposed for late July 1939 but long before this date political tensions elsewhere in Europe meant the dedication ceremony’s postponement. The Second World War then intervened, although from 1940 onwards commemorative ceremonies were held on the site.
Nevertheless no formal state occasion took place. On two occasions in the 1950s, December 1956 and October 1958 dissident republicans attempted to blow up the memorial cross: on the second occasion it was reported that ‘the flash of the explosion was seen in Rialto, almost two miles away.’ Somehow in both instances the monument survived this inglorious assault but far more insidious was the ongoing neglect of the site by state and civic authorities.
Finally in the early 1980s, by which time the gardens had fallen into a shamefully shabby condition, a programme of restoration began and at last in 1988 the official ceremony of dedication, delayed for almost four decades, took place. Since that date the place has been consistently maintained although its location, somewhat away from the city centre and today surrounded by housing, means the National War Memorial Gardens is something of an under-valued resource. But they merit a visit, if only to remind all of us that while humanity has been responsible for acts of appalling barbarism, it can also claim redemption through the creation of beauty. Especially on today’s anniversary, both deserve to be remembered.
Like many other people around the world I have been much moved by this wordless response from customarily articulate spokesman for UNRWA Christopher Gunness to the horror he has witnessed during the present conflict in Gaza. If you have not yet watched it, I would encourage you to do so: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFd8jVrbf0A