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The Irish National War Memorial Gardens Islandbridge collage

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge

A site of history and memory by Maeve Casserly

Rowers, dog-walkers, joggers and picnicking families can spend many a happy hour in these beautiful memorial gardens, a sanctuary of peace and calm in Islandbridge right next to one of the busiest roads coming into Dublin! But the history of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens is far more complex than these tranquil surroundings let on. In the media coverage of Elisabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom’s visit to the site in April 2011, the main point emphasised was the reverential treatment given by both heads of state, the Queen and the then President, Mary McAleese to those that had died in the Great War.

Since the 1990s this shared experience of war has been used as a means to find common ground in Irish and British relations in the hopes that a shared experience of human cost might transcend local political and sectarian differences. Significantly President Mary Robinson in 1993 was the first incumbent Irish head of state to attend the British Legion’s Annual Remembrance Day ceremony in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, at which she laid a garland. President Michael D. Higgins continues this tradition at annual services in the Cathedral. Another example of these acts of public reconciliation took place on July 2012 when the unionist lord major of Belfast, Gavin Robinson, joined his Dublin counterpart, Naoise Ó Muirí, at Islandbridge to pay tribute to the common sacrifice of Ireland’s First World War dead. A clear culmination of these very public attempts at new beginnings was the announcement of President Higgins’ official state visit to the United Kingdom, scheduled for April 2014. In ‘words that captured a century of history’, Buckingham Palace announced, ‘This is the first State visit to the United Kingdom by an Irish President.’

The War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge have had a numbers of set-backs and difficulties throughout their history. As early as 17 July 1919 at a meeting in the Viceregal Lodge of over one hundred representative from across the country, it was decided that there should be a permanent memorial to commemorate all Irish men and women killed in the Great War. The garden’s chief designer was the imperial architect Sir Edwin Lutyens who designed the Centoph in London’s Whitehall. It was originally destined for Merrion Square, but the political leadership of the 1920s felt that while Irishmen who died in British uniforms during the Great War were not necessarily unpatriotic, they could not be remembered in the heart of the city. Kevin O’Higgins, who had himself lost a brother in the war, spoke out against placing the memorial so close to Leinster House. In an intense debate in the Dáil in March 1927, he argued that it would be misleading, ‘a wrong twist as to the origins of the State’, although he did not deny the sacrifice the dead had made, he argued that ‘it is not on their sacrifice that this state is based, and I have no desire to see it suggested that it is.’ Islandbridge was eventually chosen because it was suitable for a monumental park and it was remote from the city and the ‘consciousness of the people.’ Yet it must be born in mind its close proximity to other iconic sites of memory such as Kilmainham Gaol or the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, and was therefore a highly appropriate location choice.

On the OPW official website, the ‘Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge are dedicated to the memory of the 49,400 Irish soldiers who died between 1914-1918 in the First World War.’ The state sanctioned £50,000 to the First World War Memorial fund in 1929. The planned bridge linking the gardens with the Phoenix Park was never built due to money constraints. Islandbridge combined the desirable qualities of monumentality, utility, a certain degree of invisibility. Construction of the linear parkway, about 60 hectares in total, began in 1931 and took about two years to complete. The Memorial Gardens were then laid out between 1933 and 1939. The workforce for the project was drawn evenly of ex-British Army servicemen and ex-servicemen from the Irish National Army. Work began in December 1931, two months before the defeat of W.T. Cosgrave and the accession of Eamonn De Valera as Taoiseach. By March 1937 the Minister for Finance, Séan McEntee showed less unease with the memory of the Great War,a formal handing over of the War Memorial Park by the Trustees and acceptance by the Government would be a graceful gesture which…could be treated as symbolic of the unification of all elements in the community under an agreed democratic Constitution which guarantees the respect for the rights of all citizens

In December 1938 De Valera indicated in favour of an opening ceremony in the summer of 1939 with himself present, though this was ‘conditional on the absence of anything that might tend to create ill feeling or resentment…for the Government.’ However, in 1939, with the announcement that conscription might be extended to Northern Ireland, all opening plans were ‘indefinitely postponed’ because of the international situation. It was felt that the ceremony might provoke ‘hostility and give rise to misunderstanding.’ Official tolerance was still displayed when the British Legion was permitted for the first time to hold a ceremony at Islandbridge on Armistice Day in 1940. Shortly after the ceremony De Valera concluded that in, ‘in view of the war conditions, the question of State assistance for further works at Islandbridge Memorial cannot usefully be pursued at present.’ Nearly half a century of neglect followed. In 1966 the chairman of the OPW, Harry Mundow, suggested ‘as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation’ that the garden be completed and the planned bridge across the Liffey to the Phoenix Park be built. Lemass turned down the proposal, and the memorial remained incomplete. The official opening of the park in 1988 took place without participation of the Haughey government. Finally on 1 July 2006, the ninetieth anniversary of the Somme, the park was officially opened to the public at a ceremony attended by President Mary McAleese. The site is now managed by the Office of Public Works and the National War Memorial Committee. Despite its remote location, the fact remains that Islandbridge is unique in being the largest monument to any military service on the island of Ireland.

Cat John Rooney