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National War Memorial Gardens

The National War Memorial Gardens, a monument to the Irish war dead, lies opposite the Obelisk in the Phoenix Park, across the River Liffey, in a quiet district known as Islandbridge. The memorial --- a secluded and tranquil park with a central set of monuments  --- was originally intended to honour the memory of 49,400 Irish soldiers who lost their lives in the 1st Word War. It now also commemorates all the other Irish men and women who served in Irish regiments of the Allied forces during both World Wars. It is believed that, during the second World War at least 100,000 Irish soldiers died fighting for the British Army alone. Designed by one of Europe's greatest memorial architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens, the gardens utilise herbaceous borders and contain numerous trees and sunken rose gardens. It is a somber place of quiet reflection and honour.

Group gets a tour guide at the Memorial Gardens -- it's a bit windy!

Ireland and the First World War

To understand the history of the Irish War Memorial Gardens, it helps to know a little bit about that period in Irish history when they were first conceived and designed. In 1914, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. Irish nationalists -- the majority of the island's population, mostly (but not exclusively) Catholics -- bitterly resented being ruled by a London government. For almost half a century, nationalists had fought political battles in the Westminster Parliament to achieve "home rule", or federal self-government. Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom, but with its own Dublin-based administration, elected by the Irish people. The Government of Ireland Act of 1914, passed by the Liberal Party, finally paved the way for self-government, and it seemed like Ireland was at last on the brink of home rule -- even if the outbreak of the war postponed its enactment. Regardless of any resentment they may have felt about centuries of British oppression, many thousands of Irish nationalists voluntarily enlisted in the British Army. There were a variety of reasons for this, chief among them being that most Irish people believed the war against Hitler was a "just cause". Thousands of unionists, mainly Protestants and mainly from the north of the island, enlisted too. Identifying themselves as British, the unionists' decision was somewhat more straightforward. 

The Conscription Crisis

By 1918, however, German troops had broken through Allied lines in several parts of France, and the struggling British Army desperately needed more troops on the Western Front. In Prime Minister David Lloyd George had already introduced conscription -- or mandatory recruitment into the military forces -- had already been introduced into Britain in 1916. Now he wanted to extend it to Ireland. By 1918, Ireland still hadn't received the long-promised Home Rule. Meanwhile, the leaders of a small, failed but symbolic military rebellion against the British presence in Ireland, known as the 1916 Easter Rising, were executed in callous fashion -- causing outrage throughout nationalist Ireland. While hundreds of thousands of Irish men had already voluntarily enlisted in the British army, the idea that a British leader was going to force Irish men to fight for Britain, against this background of resentment, was a bridge too far. An anti-conscription movement began throughout the country, with the full and active support of the Catholic church. The attempt to introduce conscription failed and, ultimately, was one of the main political factors that led to Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Party, winning the Irish general election of 1918. Key political events in the formation of the Irish state quickly followed:

  • 1919: The Declaration of Independence (Sinn Fein forms a breakaway goverment and declares Ireland to be a separate country, independent from Great Britain)
  • 1919 - 1921: The Irish War of Independence (Guerilla war between IRA volunteers war and British soldiers in Ireland)
  • 1921: The Anglo-Irish Treaty (IRA leaders sign treaty with British leaders, agreeing to partition Ireland into two states, with northern part remaining in United Kingdom)
  • 1922 - 1923: The Irish Civil War (Conflict between two opposing groups within Irish nationalism -- one favouring partition; one against) 

Original Design of the War Memorial

At 42 York Street, Dublin on 17th July 1919, over one hundred members of an organisation known as the Comrades of the Great War met . The organisation's  leader, Sir John French, who was the British Army's Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, gave a speech in which he emphasised that the Comrades membership was made up of over 2,500 men, who had served in all sections of the service. Politics, Sir French reminded his comrades during his speech, were "eschewed" within the organisation's walls. The meeting attendees agreed to established a trust fund of 50,000 pounds to consider plans for a permanent memorial to honour the soldiers who had given their lives in the war. The original idea was to create a memorial home -- a building where returning soldiers and ex-veterans could mix, socialise and relax. Although many fund subscribers supported the idea of a soldiers' home, the incoming authorities in Ireland disapproved. The political climate in Ireland was changing fast, and the idea of establishing a home for British soldiers on Irish soil was becoming a political hot potato. 

Design and Construction of the Gardens

After the plan for a soldiers' home was scrapped, the Memorial Gardens, then, was the less offensive 'Plan B'. Many obstacles had to be overcome, such as choosing an appropriate location. Construction did not begin until 1932 but even then, continuous difficulties arose resulting in further delays over many years. The arrival  of the Second World War presented another delay, before the memorial was finally finished. 

Disrepair and Disuse

After the formation of the Irish state, Ireland's relationship with Britain (in the southern part of the island, at least) remained strained. Nationalist Ireland's identity was very much about being unique and distinct from Britain. While, at a local level, families acknowledged family members that had fought in the World Wars, fighting for Britain didn't tally with the Irish separatist sense of identity. At a community or national level, then, the war sacrifices were generally not well commemorated. For these reasons of political and cultural sensitivity, the gardens remained unopened throughout the early decades of the state. Eventually, they fell into disrepair from disuse. Members of the Irish travelling community lived in the gardens. 

Restoration, Formal Public Opening and Dedications

Restoration work began in the mid 1980s, with funding received from organisations on both sides of the island of Ireland. On 10 September 1988, the gardens were formally dedicated in a religious service jointly celebrated by the four main churches in Ireland. The gardens were officially opened to the public --- 70 years after Sir French had proposed a fund to commemorate the war dead. However, no government minister from the Republic of Ireland attended the ceremony. Slowly, however, cultural and political attitudes towards the war dead began to change. In 1993 Mary Robinson became the first Irish President to attend the annual Remembrance Day service in St Patrick’s Cathedral, one of many initiatives she undertook to improve relations with Northern Ireland. In 2006, politicians from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, including the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and President Mary McAlesese, attended a state commemoration of the Irish war dead, when a service was held at the Gardens to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It was the first time the Irish goverment had publicly acknowledged its British military past in this way. 

List of Names of the War Dead

One of Sir French's other legacy's to the Irish war dead was to put together a volume of eight leather-bound books, containing the alphabetised names and other details of all the soldiers who died during the First World War -- some 49,900 of them. Published in 1923, one set of the volumes were donated to the City of Ypres in Belgium, where they are held at the Flanders Museum. The volumes are now searchable online: Another set of the books may be found in the granite bookrooms (mini-museums), located at either side of the gardens. The bookrooms are usually closed, but may be opened as part of a guided tour. 

The Great Cross

The centrepiece of the gardens is the War Stone, which is designed to resemble a large stone altar and weighs approximately 7,000 kg / 15,000 pounds. A giant Celtic Cross, known as the Great Cross, stands directly behind it. Inscribed on the stone are the words: "Their names liveth for ever more." 

The Ginchy Cross

One of the pavilions that flank the gardens houses the the Guillemont Ginchy Cross. Built by the 16th Irish Division, it was originally erected during the Battle of the Somme in a field between the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy --  villages that had been liberated, at a cost of over 4,000 Irish lives. Designed on blotting paper, the Celtic cross was fashioned from oak beams found in the area. Granite replicas of the Ginchy cross were erected at Guillemont and at Wytscheate in Belgium. 

The Queen's Visit

In 2011, Queen Elizabeth II visited the Irish War Memorial Gardens. In a hugely symbolic ceremony, which was interpreted as a gesture of reconciliation between the two nations, the Queen walked up a green carpet before placing a red poppy wreath at the monument, to honour the Irish soldiers who had died fighting for Britain between 1914 and 1918. 

Opening Times

Admission is free and the Memorial Gardens are open Monday through Friday from 8 AM, and Saturday and Sunday from 10 AM. Closing time is not officially set, but depends on the time on the year, when the daylight starts to fade. 


Image by Simon


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