Blink and you'll miss a key part of our history
War memorials hidden across the country tell a story of heroism and sacrifice, says Ralph Riegel
Published 18/05/2014 | 02:30
Tribute is paid to the people who lost their lives in World War I at memorials around the country, including at (clockwise from top left) Old Abbey Graveyard, Kinsale, Co Cork; Bandon, Co Cork; World's End, Kinsale; and Kilworth, Cork.
BLINK and you'll most likely miss them. Hidden in graveyards, tucked away on old walls and sheltering behind ageing trees, they stand testimony to an Ireland long since vanished.
But if you pause and take time to study them, each has an incredible story to tell of heroism, sacrifice and tragedy.
Ireland's World War I memorials have for generations reflected the angst of a nation struggling to reconcile its imperial past with its proudly independent present.
Now, as the centenary of WWI approaches and Anglo-Irish relations reach their warmest level in centuries, those memorials to Ireland's lost generation are the focus of unprecedented interest.
Historian Paudie McGrath was instrumental in compiling 'A Great Sacrifice', a book which details many of those who died in 1914-1918.
"In addition to the personal importance of a war memorial to a community it is sometimes the case that the memorial is the only record of individual names and, as such, it is important to preserve the memorial and the names so that we can continue to commemorate that individual's sacrifice," he said.
"In this way, memorials are also a useful historical source and an important part of our heritage that must be protected."
The roller-coaster change in Irish attitudes towards WWI memorials is easy to gauge.
When Cork's famous memorial to WWI dead was unveiled on the South Mall on St Patrick's Day in 1925, thousands attended including hundreds of relatives of those who fought with the disbanded Munster Fusiliers.
By the 1950s, often only a few dozen would attend Remembrance Day services at the same memorial.
Dublin's famous War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge endured an even more traumatic time.
Designed by famous London architect Edwin Lutyens and opened, somewhat ironically, in 1939 as WWII was about to erupt, the facility was twice the target of attacks aimed at destroying its stone memorials.
A section of the facility was also the target of deliberate dumping at one stage.
Now, it ranks as one of the most pristine and moving WWI memorials outside of France and Belgium.
But Islandbridge wasn't the only memorial to be targeted with a British Legion memorial in Limerick destroyed in a 1957 bomb attack.
Attitudes have, at times, been quite slow to change in Ireland.
A special Fermoy memorial was unveiled to local WWI dead on October 8, 2006 by then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
The memorial, designed by Ken Thompson and made out of Wicklow granite, was unveiled with a delegation of Irish Guards attending in full uniform from the British army.
It was hailed both in Ireland and the UK as an historic example of Anglo-Irish rapprochement.
Months later, the memorial was defaced in an early morning attack which was widely condemned.
But the memorial was cleaned and repaired with no further attacks since.
The changing of Irish attitudes over the past 10 years is reflected in many ways.
In Callan, Co Kilkenny, a special committee has organised a mock-up of a plaque to commemorate all those from the area who fought and died in 1914-18.
The memorial will be erected within weeks in time for the centenary of the outbreak of WWI.
Other communities nationwide are working to remember those who endured the horrors of the trenches only to return to a country that has changed beyond recognition and didn't want to hear about WWI losses.
Major memorials were unveiled over recent years in Mayo and Waterford to the local WWI dead – the latter of which includes thousands of names.
In Dublin's Connolly Station thousands of DART and InterCity commuters daily pass a memorial to Great Northern Railway workers who died in 1914-18.
President Michael D Higgins made specific and pointed reference to the Irishmen who died serving in World War I in the same breath as he praised War of Independence patriots including Tomas MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney while accepting the Freedom of Cork.
Yet, aside from diplomacy and politics, the memorials bear mute witness to the agonies of a war that time has done little to ease.
For instance, in Kilworth Arts Centre, developed in a former Church of Ireland premises in the quiet north Cork village, a plaque on the stairs leading to the balcony tells of one family's terrible loss in echoes of Hollywood epics 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Sullivans'.
The white marble pays tribute to Private Hugo Fleury, Rifleman John Fleury and Able Seaman Robert Fleury.
The three brothers, the sons of Kilworth Rector Louis Fleury and his wife, Alice, all died in three different WWI theatres between 1915 and 1917.
Robert was killed in action at Gallipoli aged just 23 with the Royal Naval Division.
John died in the trenches on the western front in 1916 with the New Zealand Rifles.
Hugo was killed in September 1917 fighting on the western front with the Canadian Infantry's Ontario Regiment.
Few can pass the memorial without wondering what appalling grief that one family must have endured in the war supposed to end all wars.
Rev Fleury had served as chaplain to the local army camp but must never have imagined the loss that war would visit on his own family.
In Cobh, the memorial is to those who died on the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale.
In Bandon, the memorial to locals who died in 1914-1918 was fittingly erected on Station Road, just metres from the old Bandon Railway Station.
The memorial stands at the spot where, for many, they caught their last ever sight of their hometown as they shipped off to the Somme, Ypres, Verdun and Passchendaele.
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
Irish Independent Supplement