Sunday 23 October 2016

Idealism and poverty led them to march to battle

The sacrifice of 3,500 fallen Irish soldiers is recognised at the eerily enchanting National War Memorial Gardens

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny during a ceremony to mark the Battle of the Somme Centenary at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Taoiseach Enda Kenny during a ceremony to mark the Battle of the Somme Centenary at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Blood-red roses fringe the lily ponds that commemorate the fallen. A weeping willow, pale green like a sentry, stands out from the foliage surrounding the pergolas of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin.

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Almost 1,000km from the battlefields of France, where the blood of over 1.3million British, German, French and Irish soldiers soaked into the farmland by the sides of the River Somme, the memory of the battle that raged between July and November 1916 has not faded. Yesterday, 100 years on, was an occasion for marching bands and military commands and the pomp and circumstance that mark the official commemoration for the 3,500 Irishmen who fell in that infamous battle.

But the memorial gardens to the war dead by the side of the River Liffey are mostly enchanting for their silence, in stark contrast to the pounding of guns, the roar of tanks and artillery and the cries of the stricken and fallen who long ago died on the battlefields it commemorates.

The blocks of granite dug out of the Dublin Mountains bear no names; the inscription carved and highlighted in gold lettering simply states: "To the memory of 49,400 Irish men who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918."

Wreaths lie against a seven-ton coffin-like block of granite with the inscription "Their Names Liveth Forever".

The biggest wreath, made up of artificial poppies, is from the Royal British Legion.

Another, simpler one dedicated to "Brothers Charlie Kennedy and Jack Fahey, soldiers of the Great War".

Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, there are three sunken rose gardens, and on the heights in the middle, four ornamental stone pergolas guard the perimeter of the central garden.

These contain illuminated books with the names of the Irishmen who perished, and a poignant collection of collection of First World War memorabilia - uniforms, letters, badges, Christmas cards and other ephemera of that lost generation collected by Ronald J Marino, a trustee of the gardens.

I managed to get a preview as carpenters put the final touches to the display cabinets which were unveiled yesterday. As you look through the door, you meet the dark-eyed stare of Lord Herbert Kitchener, the Kerry-born soldier who points his finger directly at you as he exhorts through his well-barbered moustache: "Britons, your country wants you."

Adventure, idealism and poverty led thousands of Irishmen to sign up and march off to battle and die on far foreign fields for the "freedom of small nations".

Over a million men died at the Battle of the Somme; the eventual gain from this war of attrition was a six-mile-long bubble in the German lines. A lot of blood of 36th Ulster and the 16th Irish Division was spilt for such little reward.

Among those who died, on September 3, 1916, was the nationalist MP Tom Kettle, who had enlisted in the hope that standing by the British Empire would lead to a free and united Ireland.

"Used with the wisdom which is sown in tears of blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed," he had written, "the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain."

But it was to take the best part of a century before a British monarch would finally stand in the memorial gardens in Islandbridge where Kettle and his unnamed comrades from both sides of the border are commemorated.

The survivors of that brutal war came back to the cold climate of a rebellious Ireland. Their sacrifice and idealism was no longer regarded as patriotic; if anything, it was seen as the opposite.

The memorial that commemorates the dead of that blood sacrifice was encouraged by the leaders of the new state, WT Cosgrave and later Eamon de Valera, but not completed until 1939, when neutral Ireland looked on as Europe was once more ablaze.

The garden would commemorate the dead of this war, too.

In the intervening years, the IRA twice tried to blow up the monument to the fallen of both wars, and this beautiful park was held in such low public esteem that in the 1970s, it was turned into a rubbish tip for Dublin Corporation.

But even then, there was something eerily enchanting about the place, as those who stumbled upon its dilapidated grandeur found.

One man who came upon it accidentally at the time told me he later discovered the name of his 23-year-old grand-uncle, John Madden, who died in France in March 1918, inscribed in the roll of honour.

Just outside the gates of this still, tranquil park, which is now known as the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, are Kilmainham Gaol and the Royal Hospital - both, like the gardens, rescued from apathy and neglect by the few who want to preserve the past to inform the future.

Thankfully, this place is no longer a divisive symbol of an unloved empire, but somewhere to pause and reflect on the frailty of life and the human folly of so many men who gave their lives for such little advantage.

While the Battle of the Somme may have been a dubious military campaign, at least these men now have a memorial that recognises their sacrifice, unlike Sir John Moore, who fell at the Battle of Corunna centuries earlier, but whose epitaph we remember from a poem we learned in school:

'Slowly and sadly we laid him down,

From the field of his fame fresh and gory;

We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,

But left him alone with his glory'

Sunday Independent

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