Sunday 19 May 2019

The gardens we had forgotten we'd forgotten

The neglect of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens was seen as a reflection of our attitude to the thousands of Irish who gave their lives during World War I

Guard of honour: Mary McAleese during the 90th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Somme at the Irish National War Memorial Park in Dublin
Guard of honour: Mary McAleese during the 90th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Somme at the Irish National War Memorial Park in Dublin
The First Battalion of Irish Guards hold aloft their helmets in France as they hear the news of the armistice. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A new six-metre high sculpture depicting a weary World War I soldier in St Stephen's Green, Dublin
John Meagher

John Meagher

On a rainy Saturday in September 1988, a large group of elderly men and their families made their way to Islandbridge, just south of Dublin's Phoenix Park, for a commemoration many may have thought they would never see in their lifetimes.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens were being formally opened and RTÉ's cameras were there to record the events for that evening's news. Reporter Joe O'Brien spoke to an English serviceman, Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Boydell, who had made the trip to Dublin for the occasion and he noted that it was about time the state had acknowledged the contribution made by Irish who had fought for the Allies between 1914 and 1918.

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"I think the Irish should be proud of people who gave their lives for freedom and against tyranny," he said.

Leaders of the four main Christian churches officiated and the gardens were formally dedicated. It may have surprised those watching the television news that night that this beautifully appointed park, with its matching sunken rose gardens, hadn't recently come into existence: it had, in fact, been conceived in the immediate aftermath of World War I and was laid out to the exacting designs of the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens in the 1930s.

The First Battalion of Irish Guards hold aloft their helmets in France as they hear the news of the armistice. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The First Battalion of Irish Guards hold aloft their helmets in France as they hear the news of the armistice. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Funding had been provided by Éamon de Valera's government and there were plans to formally open the gardens on completion at the end of the 1930s. But the outbreak of World War II put those plans on hold, and the Ireland that emerged in the late 1940s and into the 1950s seemed to have little interest in commemorating those who had died fighting for the British army several decades before, or honouring the huge numbers from this country who had fought in the trenches.

And the wonderful gardens at Islandbridge were collateral damage in that apathy. As local resident, the historian and genealogy expert Brian Donovan has said, the Irish National War Memorial Gardens represented "in microcosm" the attitude of the state and society to those who had fought - and in the case of at least 35,000 - given their lives in one of the most savage wars the world has ever seen. If a founding father of Irish independence like De Valera could see the value in devoting funding to a memorial park in the 1930s, less than two decades after the war, political will seemed to have dried up completely. Many of those who had served in the British army years before refused to talk about their experience for fear of causing offences in a new republic where anti-British sentiment sometimes ran high.

One could even hear such views in the Dáil. In 1970, then minister for local government Kevin Boland, sneered at the attempts of conservationists to preserve Georgian Dublin and talked of "belted earls" and "the Guinness aristocracy who pull the strings to which the Georgians dance".

The destruction of Nelson's Pillar in 1966 captured the willingness of some to erase as much British history from Ireland as possible, but it was by no means an isolated incident. Dissident groups devoted much of their energies towards blowing up statues celebrating British imperialism, and there were several attempts on the Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park.

"While the destruction of British symbolism was a common occurrence here in the decades following independence," writes Donal Fallon of the popular Come Here To Me! history blog, "it was largely confined to statues and monuments of individuals that republicans objected to, like Horatio Nelson or King William of Orange".

And the largely forgotten memorial gardens at Islandbridge suffered their fair share of the brunt of jingoistic nationalism in the middle years of the last century, too. A bomb was detonated at the base of the granite cross there on Christmas Day 1956, but did little damage. A contemporary newspaper report claimed that the blast could be heard as far away as Castleknock and Finglas.

A new six-metre high sculpture depicting a weary World War I soldier in St Stephen's Green, Dublin
A new six-metre high sculpture depicting a weary World War I soldier in St Stephen's Green, Dublin

A similar detonation was carried out two years later, but it, too, caused little damage and gardaí surmised both attempts were the work of people who had little experience with explosives.

Quietly, and without much publicity, servicemen continued to go to Islandbridge for Remembrance Day each November and anyone who ventured to the park in the days and weeks after would see the wreaths that had been left in commemoration. The author and journalist Kevin Myers has written extensively about how, for much of the 20th Century, Ireland ignored the wartime service of so many of its countrymen.

He, too, believed the fate of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens reflected how this country treated its veterans of the Great War - if they were even thought of them all.

In his acclaimed book, Ireland's Great War, Myers recalled the day he first tried to locate the gardens. It was 1979 and he had little luck when stopping passersby on the streets of Kilmainham to establish where precisely the memorial was.

"In 1919, Europe had gone one way, and independent Ireland had gone another, the journey of the latter taking it to a condition of utter amnesia about the very war that was central to its foundation myths," he wrote. "For without the Great War, there could have been no Easter Rising, and no gallant allies to support it.

"Yet it had nonetheless been completely forgotten, and so totally that not merely had people forgotten, but they'd forgotten that they'd forgotten. So complete was the eradication of any knowledge of Irish involvement in the war, that yards away from the great park to honour Ireland's war dead, no-one admitted to knowing of its existence."

When he eventually found his way there - in those days long before Google Maps and smartphone navigation - he was shocked at what he saw. "By that time it had been turned into an urban tip-head," he wrote, "with Dublin Corporation lorries disgorging the city's rubbish on to vast mounds of spoil. A score or more tinkers' caravans were parked on the edges of the park, and alongside them were the rusting hulks of scrapped cars. Piebald ponies grazed in the foot-high weeds, children scavenged through the waste, and Lutyens' great granite columns were covered with graffiti. In the muck, almost invisible, lay the two elegant granite obelisks meant to represent lapidary candles, now felled, and almost invisible."

Myers' first visit came at the end of a decade in which anti-British feeling was arguably higher than at any stage since independence. The conflict in the North had delivered one massacre after the next - including the mass killing of the Miami Showband in 1975 - and there had been riots outside the British embassy in Dublin. It would have been a brave soul indeed who would venture to wear a British Legion poppy on the streets back then.

But as the 1980s wore on, there were concerted attempts to preserve the best buildings and parks in the country and the Dublin Millennium celebrations of 1988 saw much civic pride being restored even if the historians were quizzical about the idea that the year really marked the 1,000th birthday of the capital.

The Office of Public Works was charged with restoring the gardens to their former glory - and there was much work to be done, as half a century of storms had done more damage than vandals or would-be Republican bombers.

In the 30 years that have elapsed since their opening, attitudes to the Irish men who served in the Great War have changed significantly. There's an acceptance that many followed John Redmond's plea that by fighting with the British, they would help win independence. Others were motivated by a desire to fight a common enemy. And there were other men - many of them from the Protestant tradition - who had felt themselves to be British in a country that was heaving towards self-determination.

Just as Ireland managed to drop the shackles of conservatism over the past three decades, so too did we come to a greater understanding of the role the country played in a war that came to an end 100 years ago. And the Irish National War Memorial Gardens has played its part in helping us to appreciate our past.

The first major commemoration there happened on July 2006, to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It was attended by President Mary McAleese, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, representatives of all political parties here and from Northern Ireland.

Islandbridge was also the focus of attention in May 2001 when Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese laid wreathes to honour Ireland's dead from both world wars on the occasion of the first state visit by a British monarch to this country.

Then in July 2016, in a year devoted to commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the Rising, a state ceremony was held at the Memorial Gardens to mark the centenary of the Somme. President Michael D Higgins laid a wreath in honour of the fallen in a ceremony that was attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

And only this week, a sculpture created from scrap metal depicting a weary soldier to commemorate the centenary of the ending of World War I was unveiled in St Stephen's Green, Dublin.

A sign of the sea change in attitude towards those Ireland's Great War veterans can be gleaned by work the GAA has done in order to identify members who fought in the British army, including Clare hurler John Fox.

"Glad [the GAA] is remembering its fallen heroes," Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted during the week. "Hill 16 [the Croke Park terrace] was originally called Hill 60 out of respect for Irish soldiers who fought and died trying to take that hill at Gallipoli. Recalling our shared history helps us to understand more. It doesn't threaten our loyalties."

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