Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Commemoration in the landscape: The Irish National War Memorial Gardens

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin is not an especially difficult place to find; however, if you do not know its precise location, you might very well drive right past it without knowing it is there. The gardens are below street level, and apart from the small sign marking the main entrance, there is very little fanfare attached to the place.

When I decided to visit the gardens, I wanted to be clear about exactly which bus would drop me near the main entrance, and so went to the Dublin Bus website to figure out which bus travels along Con Colbert Road. On the route planner the name Irish National War Memorial Gardens does not appear. I decided brevity must be the order of the day, so dropped the words 'Irish' and 'National' from my search terms; however, the only choice which came up was 'Memorial Gardens'. The words Irish National War do not appear.

The erasure of the words which delineate its proper name, as well as the history of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, serves as a marker that there was — and still is in some quarters — some reticence about honouring those Irish who fought and died as part of the British forces during the First World War.

Designed by English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, the gardens were devised and laid out beginning in 1933 with completion in 1939. The project could have served as a model for co-operation between the Irish and the British people. The team which built all of the structures in the plan, and planted all of the greenery in the garden spaces, was comprised of former British servicemen and former Irish members of the Irish National Army, with fifty percent of the workforce hailing from Britain, and fifty percent of the workforce being Irish born.

More Irish citizens fought in the First World War than fought in The Easter Rising, The War of Independence, and The Irish Civil War combined (Wishart pp.111-118). Despite this fact, the Irish National War Memorial Gardens has never really been brought into public consciousness as an important place of commemoration. The gardens were never officially unveiled by the Irish government. In 1937 the government, led by then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, refused the invitation to attend the first Armistice Day ceremonies held in the gardens (Leonard, page 66). Although this refusal is perhaps not surprising, given De Valera's history within the independence movement, it was quite a disappointment for those Irish families commemorating their dead.

Over time the gardens were allowed to fall into a disgraceful state of disrepair until they were restored in the 1980s. On the day of my visit this past January, I was disheartened to see that the gardens are principally used as an off lead dog park, although there is a sign at the entrance prohibiting off lead dogs, and I was appalled to see dog excrement on one of the principal monuments.

In my opinion, to fail to properly honour those Irish, who sacrificed their lives on the battlegrounds of Europe, is like saying some war dead are more important than others. I can imagine those Irish families, including my own, who lost loved ones who had fought with the British forces during the First World War asking, 'Aren't our war dead as important as yours?'

The granite banner reads: 'To The Memory of 49,400* Irish Men Who Gave Their Lives in The Great War 1914-1918'
The fact is, like many Irish, my family history takes me to both sides of the argument. We lost family members both in the fight for the freedom of Ireland, and in the fight for the freedom of Europe.

Those of you who have been with me over the long haul know the story of my paternal grandmother Anne Magee, who served as a member of Cumann na mBan, running guns and delivering dispatches, as well as campaigning against the conscription of Irish into the British Forces during the First World war. You will also recall the story of her brother, my granduncle Michael Magee, who fought during the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, and ultimately died from wounds he sustained in a failed ambush in January of 1921. Both Anne and Michael were committed to breaking the yoke of British rule over Ireland.  However, within their own family Michael and Anne's uncle, their mother's brother William Dunne, spent over a decade of his life in the service of the King, as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. William fought in the Boer War, and ultimately lost his life in the battle for Ypres, Belgium.

On the maternal side of my family tree, both Thomas 'Tom' Michael Kettle and his brother Laurence  'Larrie' Kettle fondly held out the hope that they would live to see an independent Ireland. To that end both were members of the United Irish League, and worked with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers to make that happen. Both Tom and Larrie were members of the Provisional Committee which held the inaugural meeting to form the Irish Volunteers in 1913. Tom was in Belgium buying arms for the Irish Volunteers when he made his decision to join the fight against Germany. Tom was killed fighting on the Somme in September of 1916. Also, my maternal grandfather's first cousin William Pell was killed in action with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in Belgium in 1915.

What is clear from all of this is that these lives were not lived in black and white, the grey areas abound. Although we cannot know precisely each person's reasons for signing on to fight against German hegemony or against British rule, presumably each man fought and died for a cause in which he believed. From our perspective in the 21st century what we should be able to see is, that all peoples should have the right to self-determination, and the right to be free from tyranny. 

As I stood within the grounds of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens on that cold January day, I felt deep gratitude for those who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, whether for the freedom of Ireland or the freedom of Europe, and I dearly hope that all of them will always be remembered.

'Their Name Liveth For Evermore'


Tomorrow: Wordless Wednesday: In Images: The Irish National War Memorial Gardens


Leonard, J. ‘Facing the Finger of Scorn: Veterans’ Memories of Ireland and the Great War’ in Evans, M. and K. Lunn (eds.)
War and Memory in the Twentieth Century, Oxford, 1997

Wishart, D. ‘The Selectivity of Historical Representation’ in The Journal of Historical Geography, Volume 23, 1997.

Note: * There is an ongoing dispute about the accuracy of the number, with some scholars arguing that the number of Irish killed is closer to 35,000.

Click on images to view larger versions.

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