When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 1914, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. The decade leading up to this cataclysmic occasion was one of political stirrings against British rule in Ireland and the stage was being set for revolution. But once ‘little Belgium’ was invaded, the preparations being made in Ireland for any uprising were, in the main, shelved and over the next four years over 300,000 Irishmen donned the uniform of the British Army, many in newly formed Irish divisions. After all, Home Rule for Ireland had been promised when Germany was defeated. When the war ended in November 1918, over 49,000 Irishmen had been killed in the fields of France, Flanders and Gallipoli. As the survivors trickled home throughout 1919 the older veterans found a very different Ireland than the one they had left some few years before. The War of Independence against Britain had commenced, another bloody conflict that would not end until 1921, followed by the emergence of the Irish Free State in 1922.
This did not mean that many still felt that the Irish dead of the Great War should not be suitably honoured. Beginning in 1919, plans were advanced to build a national war memorial somewhere in Dublin. A fund was launched which in the first year raised a staggering £45,000 (worth around €2.5 million today). Many discussions took place at various levels but over the next few years the Government, which generally supported the project, was in a difficult position. It was being pulled by a nationalistic dynamic which didn’t want any further political or militaristic association with Britain. In the end the building of the gardens received the go-ahead with the full support of Government and in 1929 a suitable site was made available along the banks of the River Liffey at the Longmeadows Estate in Islandbridge. To ensure a memorial of the highest standards a famous English (but with an Irish mother) landscape architect, Edwin Lutyens, was appointed to carry out the design. He was no stranger to Ireland having laid out several other gardens in the county. He was ably assisted by an Office of Public Works architect, TJ Byrne. Incidentally, Lutyens also designed the Cenotaph in London, the Thiepval Arch at the Somme, the British Embassy in Washington and the Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi.
Work commenced in 1933 (the year Hitler came to power!) and the labour was provided equally by ex-servicemen from the Irish National Army and the British Army. To provide as much work as possible at a time of high unemployment, the use of mechanical equipment was restricted, and even granite blocks of 7 and 8 tonnes were manhandled into place with primitive tackles of poles and ropes. All was ready by July 1939, but the growing threat of another war caused a postponement of the official opening and, in fact, there would never be an official opening! The period from the 1940s up to the early 1980s saw a gradual deterioration of the condition of the Memorial Gardens, mainly caused by apathy and even antipathy towards them while Ireland was struggling to find its own identity in the modern world. Thankfully by the 1980s there was a realisation that something should be done to rehabilitate the 8-hectare site with the result that they are the largest war memorial gardens in either Ireland or Britain and are also among the most magnificent to be found anywhere.
On entering the main arena, so to speak, a visitor will see a very symmetrical design. In the centre is the War Stone, representing an altar of remembrance. On its southern side is the tall Great Cross of Sacrifice and behind it a terrace of steps with flanking text-engravings saluting the dead of both world wars. To either side of the War Stone are the fountains with stone obelisks rising from the water dishes. These represent candles. Then just beyond the fountains are oak-topped pergolas, each ending with a Bookroom, four in total.
The granite Bookrooms were designed to hold the decorated registers (eight volumes) containing the names and other details of 49,435 Irishmen killed in the First World War. These men served in the British Army. There were probably thousands of others who served with the armies of other allies and who are not recorded here. The books are a great resource for checking family genealogy and, for convenience, all the names are available digitally in one of the bookrooms. However, the Bookrooms are not generally open to the public except on special open days, when there is a constable present or by request (see below).
On the other side of each pair of Bookrooms are the lovely sunken gardens composed of concentric terraces descending to circular pools dotted with water lilies. The pergolas and terraces are entwined with a colourful abundance of roses specially chosen for the site.
The gardens themselves are set into a wonderful park landscape of tree-lined avenues and river walks. Between the central area and the River Liffey is a small temple. On the floor of this tiny building are inscribed some lines of poetry taken from the War Sonnet by Rupert Brooke who later died from sepsis on his way to Gallipoli in 1915. Take a walk down to the river itself and discover what you won’t see in the city centre; a totally freshwater river. By the time it reaches the city it is tidal and brackish.
The Irish National War Memorial, often the scene for Government commemorations and ceremonies (Queen Elizabeth II came in 2011), can be entered from Con Colbert Road (for instance, if you are coming from Kilmainham Gaol) or from the South Circular Road at the Phoenix Park end (if you are coming by car).
It’s gardens are open during daylight hours. Guided tours are available upon request. For more information, telephone: +353 1 475 7816 or email: [email protected]