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Building of the Month - August 2014

Irish National War Memorial Gardens, INCHICORE NORTH Td., Islandbridge, County Dublin

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 01 - Representative View

Figure 1: An aerial view of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens designed by the eminent English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944).  The gardens have been admired as 'a lesson in Classical symmetry and formality and it is generally acknowledged that [Lutyen's] concept for the Islandbridge site is outstanding among the many war memorials he created throughout the world'.  Courtesy of the Photographic Unit, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht

At a meeting held in Dublin on the 17th of July, 1919, over one hundred delegates from all over Ireland set up a memorial committee with the purpose of creating a national war memorial to commemorate the Irish men and women who died during the First World War (1914-8).  The committee quickly raised close to £50,000 by public subscription and considered many proposals including a monument in Merrion Square and a memorial arch at the entrance to the Phoenix Park.  Both proposals were rejected by the new Irish government which, although sympathetic in principle to a memorial, was ambivalent owing to the political sensibilities of the time.

In 1929, after ten frustrating years of little progress, Andrew Jameson (1855-1941) of the memorial committee made representations to W.T. Cosgrave (1880-1965), President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, asking for his assistance in securing a site.  Cosgrave contacted the Office of Public Works to see whether they had any suitable public lands available adjacent to the Phoenix Park.  T.J. Byrne (1876-1939), Chief Architect to the Office of Public Works, suggested a site of twenty-five acres on the Longmeadows estate at Islandbridge, at that time subdivided into allotments, and made an outline proposal for its layout.  The sloping site on the south bank of the River Liffey was directly across from the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park and had been purchased (1904-6) by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests to prevent undesirable development from encroaching on the park (figs. 2-3).

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 02 - First Edition Ordnance Survey Extract Irish National War Memorial Gardens 03 - Aerial View

Figures 2-3: An extract from Sheet 18 of the first edition Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1837; published 1844) showing the undeveloped site on the south bank of the River Liffey with the star-shaped Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park on the opposite bank.  The site had been purchased (1904-6) by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests to prevent undesirable development from encroaching on the park and was suggested by T.J. Byrne (1876-1939) of the Office of Public Works as the most suitable site for the proposed Irish National War Memorial Gardens.  An aerial photograph shows the same view today

Byrne's outline proposal for a monumental park, incorporating a memorial garden laid out as 'a square open space of nine acres with ceremonial approaches, trees, shrubs and flower beds around a suitable monument', was endorsed by Cosgrave and his cabinet and subsequently by Jameson and the memorial committee.  In a letter to Jameson, dated the 2nd of December, 1929, Cosgrave expressed his regret at the many delays, stating: 'It is in the main a big question of Remembrance and Honour to the dead and it must always be a matter of interest to the head of the Government to see that a project so dear to a big section of the citizens should be a success'.  He also acknowledged that 200,000 Irish men had served in the war and in excess of 100,000 had attended the Armistice Day celebrations in Dublin.  Cosgrave advised that, as the garden was to be within a new public park, the government would seek approval from the Dáil not only for the site, but also for 'a substantial sum of money' to add to the funds already raised by the committee.

Andrew Jameson secured the design services of the distinguished English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), chief architect to the Imperial War Graves Commission and designer of the Cenotaph (1919-20) on Whitehall, London.  Lutyens was also a prominent country house architect and landscape designer and was no stranger to Ireland when he visited the site at Islandbridge in 1930: he had previously worked on the Heywood Gardens (1906-7) in County Laois and on Howth Castle (1910-11) and Lambay Island (1910-11) in County Dublin.  Lutyens was impressed with the selected site and quickly prepared his design, which received a favourable recommendation from T.J. Byrne.

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 04 - Stone of Remembrance

Figure 4: A view of the Stone of Remembrance designed by Lutyens in 1917 for the Imperial War Graves Commission and intended for cemeteries containing 1,000 or more graves or memorial sites commemorating 1,000 or more dead.  Each Stone of Remembrance conforms to a precise formula comprising 'one great fair stone…twelve feet in length, lying raised upon three steps, of which the first and third [are] twice the width of the second'.  The phrase inscribed on the stone, again common to all Stones of Remembrance, was proposed by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and is a quote from the Book of Ecclesiasticus: THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 05 - Fountain Irish National War Memorial Gardens 06 - Fountain Cross Section (1934)

Figures 5-6: A view of one of the obelisk-topped fountains flanking the Stone of Remembrance.  Drawing no. 26, signed by Lutyens and dated September 1934, is titled "IRISH NATIONAL WAR MEMORIAL FOUNTAINS – FULL SIZE SECTION THROUGH WALL OF LOWER BASIN".  Courtesy of the Office of Public Works

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens is an architecturally-designed, Classically-composed garden, arranged symmetrically on a north-south axis.  The central oval-shaped terrace is both enclosed by dry limestone walls and granite piers and opened out by pergolas and sunken retaining walls.  The Stone of Remembrance, an altar-like centrepiece set in a smooth lawn flanked on either side by obelisk-topped fountains, diffuses any tendency towards overt monumentality and instead invokes a sense of tranquillity (figs. 4-6).  The central axis is emphasised by the Great Cross, raised upon a platform of semi-circular steps and backed by a long staircase sweeping steeply to the north (figs. 7-8).

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 07 - Great Cross Irish National War Memorial Gardens 08 - Great Cross Inscription

Figures 7-8: A view of the Great Cross which, standing over an "altar" flanked by candle-like fountains, has been interpreted as symbolising death and resurrection.  Different to the Cross of Sacrifice designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield (1856-1942) for the Imperial War Graves Commission, the Great Cross shows truncated arms and stands on top of a square pedestal inscribed with the dates of the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945).  A Blomfield-type Cross of Sacrifice, characterised by an inlaid bronze sword and octagonal plinth, was unveiled at Glasnevin Cemetery by President Michael D. Higgins and Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, on the 31st of July, 2014

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 09 - Bookrooms

Figure 9: A view of the Classical pavilion-like "Bookrooms" designed to house the memorial record illustrated by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) and inscribed with the names of the 49,400 Irish soldiers lost during the First World War.  Today one "Bookroom" houses the Ginchy Cross, a timber cross of Celtic design erected in 1917 near Ginchy, France, as a memorial to the 4,354 men of the 16th Irish Division killed in action in just six days in September 1916.  Later replaced by a permanent stone version, the original timber cross was brought back to Ireland in 1926

Four "Bookrooms", each representing one of the four Provinces of Ireland, are set in pairs at either end of the central oval-shaped terrace (figs. 9-11).  One houses the memorial record illustrated by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) and inscribed with the names of the 49,400 Irish soldiers lost in the conflict.  These "Bookrooms", designed as Classical stone pavilions, are connected by pergolas of Doric columns overlooking two sunken rose gardens with circular lily ponds.  The recurring circular motif – the fountains, the rose gardens and the lily ponds – creates a harmonious whole.

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 10 - Bookroom Doorcase Irish National War Memorial Gardens 11 - Bookroom Niche

Figures 10-11: Details of the "Bookrooms" showcasing the silver-grey granite brought from quarries at Ballyknockan in County Wicklow and Barnacullia in south County Dublin.  It was the policy of the Office of Public Works to minimise mechanical intervention on the site, thereby generating longer employment for ex-servicemen, and this policy extended to the handling of the large blocks of granite.  The British Legion Annual (1941) remarked that 'a couple of hand winches, a few telegraph poles, an arrangement of pulley-blocks and a few hundred yards of flexible steel rope comprised all the tackle [which] was rigged up by the men themselves, the unskilled workers'

Lutyens considered the planting of trees, shrubs and flower beds to be of vital importance to the success of his design.  He was assisted in this task by an advisory committee composed of eminent horticulturists including Sir Frederick W. Moore (1857-1949), former Keeper of the Botanic Gardens.  A.F. Pearson, Assistant Superintendent of the Phoenix Park, was also a member of the committee and, in addition to overseeing the planting, selected 4,000 roses for the rose gardens (fig. 12).

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 12 - Rose Garden

Figure 12: A view of one of the sunken rose gardens arranged as concentric circles centring on lily ponds.  It has been suggested that Lutyens here attempted to evoke the spirit of a Roman arena, the clematis- and wisteria-cloaked pergolas overhead symbolising places of rest for wounded combatants.  Among the 4,000 roses planted by A.F. Pearson, Assistant Superintendent of the Phoenix Park, were popular varieties such as Rosa 'Mme. Butterfly', Rosa 'Shot Silk', and Rosa 'Madame A. Meilland', the latter developed by Francis Meilland (1912-58) of France and more commonly known as the "Peace Rose"

The Office of Public Works was involved in the construction and supervision of the project.  Work began in early 1932, employing 50% British and 50% Irish ex-servicemen.  Remarkably, no machinery was used in the earth-moving, which was carried out by hand and took two years to complete: it was the policy of the Office of Public Works to minimise mechanical intervention on the site, thereby creating as much employment as possible.  Granite for the "Bookrooms" was brought from quarries at Ballyknockan in County Wicklow and Barnacullia in south County Dublin and all of the carved stone work was completed by Irish craftsmen.  Building work was completed in 1937 and was followed by the planting of trees and shrubs by the Phoenix Park Forestry Unit.

Irish National War Memorial Gardens 13 - Temple Irish National War Memorial Gardens 14 - Temple Inscription

Figures 13-14: Disease and storms, coupled with a shortage of dedicated staff, led to the decline of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in the 1960s and 1970s; an outbreak of Dutch elm disease also decimated the central and radiating avenues.  A restoration of the gardens, begun in 1986, included the resurfacing of the pathways, the repair of the stone work on the "Bookrooms" and pergolas, the replanting of the elm avenues with lime trees, and the construction of a temple to Lutyen's original design: along with a three-arch bridge spanning the River Liffey, intended to link the gardens to the Phoenix Park, the temple was postponed in the 1930s due to a lack of funds.  A circular panel in the floor is inscribed with an excerpt from "Safety" (1914) by the war poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), one of five sonnets published in 1914 & Other Poems (1915)

Like the inception of the project, the formal dedication of the gardens suffered delays; de Valera had set a date for summer 1939, but the Second World War intervened.  Bad luck continued with the onset of decay and dereliction.  Finally, following a restoration by the Office of Public Works, the Irish National War Memorial Gardens were formally dedicated on the 10th of September, 1988, by representatives from the four main Irish churches (figs. 13-14).

Today the gardens provide a special place for remembrance ceremonies and for enjoyment by the public.  They are managed to a high standard by the National Historic Properties Service of the Office of Public Works in conjunction with the Irish National War Memorial Management Committee.

Elizabeth Morgan is Senior Landscape Conservation Architect, Office of Public Works Architectural Services, Dublin

FURTHER READING

Boydell, Lt. Col., "The Irish National War Memorial: its meaning and purpose" in British Legion Annual 1941 (Dublin: 1941), pp.15-51

D'Arcy, Fergus A., Remembering the War Dead: British Commonwealth and International War Graves in Ireland since 1914 (Dublin: The Stationary Office, 2007)

Office of Public Works, Building for Government – The Architecture of State Buildings OPW: Ireland 1900-2000 (Dublin: Town House and Country House, 1999)

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