Garden of tranquility

Though neglected for many years, the restored Irish National War Memorial Gardens form a poignant tribute to those whose lives it commemorates

 The restored Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, Dublin. Photographs: Richard Johnston

The restored Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, Dublin. Photographs: Richard Johnston

 

I’ve never fully understood why the Irish National War Memorial Gardens aren’t better known. Perhaps it’s a simple case of both geography and topography. The gardens are situated close to the southern banks of the River Liffey, roughly a mile upriver from Heuston Station and on a steeply sloping site formerly known as Longmeadows – it was once used by the Vikings as a ceremonial graveyard. The British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens’ masterpiece is cloistered away from the view of commuters making their way along any of the busy main roads that straddle its perimeter.

In fact, given its unprepossessing entrances (the original design was truncated by mid-20th

century road-planners), even pedestrians would be hard-put to know of its existence.

Like something out of the Brothers Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, trees planted in the 1930s during the time of the gardens’ construction have also matured to the point where they softly cloak its boundaries, forming a giant, leafy barricade between it and the modern world,

Perhaps yet another reason for these gardens’ relative obscurity is the age-old question of funds. Despite the stalwart efforts of the founding all-Ireland Irish National War Memorial Garden (INWMG) committee back in 1919 to raise £54,000 (an amount eventually almost matched by the Irish government), even my casual study of the archives held in the Dublin City Library revealed the extent to which financial concerns affected the final execution of Lutyens’ design. Most significantly, they stymied the construction of the proposed pedestrian bridge across the River Liffey, a bridge that would have physically linked the gardens to the Phoenix Park, and opened them up to a wider public.

But probably the most important reason for the fact that Lutyens’ gardens remain so unknown to so many in this country is that they commemorate a war that most Irish people, for most of the 20th century, wanted to forget.

The first time I heard of them was as a student at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. Pulling what I then saw as the short straw to do my student work experience at the INWMG, I inwardly groaned.

But instead, it was a revelation. After decades of neglect, during which the gardens were effectively abandoned, left to joyriders and vandals and a refuge of the homeless and the drug-addicted, I found myself in the middle of a restoration project masterminded by the OPW. The gardens’ silted-up twin circular fountains, fed by muddy water from the Liffey, were being emptied, repaired and refilled, while its elaborately carved stonework, the handiwork of skilled Irish stonemasons using granite hewn from the Wicklow mountains, was being restored.

Its twin sunken rose gardens were also being replanted, as were its herbaceous borders. Standing in front of its tree-lined avenues, its great cross of sacrifice and its war stone, it struck me then as a place plucked from the brink of destruction, enjoying a luckier fate than those whose lost lives it commemorated.

Since then I’ve visited the gardens on and off, most recently this July. As a “Bots”-trained gardener, I’d begun to wonder exactly how many of the National Botanic Gardens’ staff were amongst the names of those 49,400 dead listed in the books of remembrance published by the INWMG committee (a body entirely separate from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) back in the early 1920s. Illustrated in exquisite detail by artist Harry Clarke, these books are kept in the INWMG’s handsome bookrooms, open to the public on request.

So I contacted Alexandra Caccamo, the librarian of the National Botanic Gardens, as well as fellow horticulturist Séamus O’ Brien, of Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens, asking for information. Putting pieces of the jigsaw together, I eventually discovered the names of three men, all working as professional gardeners at the National Botanic Gardens at the outbreak of WWI, who were to become casualties of one of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century.

One was gardener and Dubliner Stephen Rose, aged 25, killed at sea on April 15th, 1917 while serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps, when his ship, the HM Transport Arcadian, was torpedoed by a U-boat while on its way to Egypt with supplies. Another was gardener and Wicklow man John Morgan, killed on April 26th, 1915 at the famous incident known as Mouse Trap Farm while serving as a member of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

And the third? His name was Charles Frederick Ball, a man considered to be one of the most gifted horticulturists of his generation. Born in England, Ball trained at Kew Gardens before moving to Ireland in 1906 to work in the “Bots” as assistant to its keeper, Sir Frederick Moore (by a sad twist of fate, Moore later served as a member of the INWMG gardening sub-committee) and become the editor of Irish Gardening.

CF Ball was 37 when a white feather, sent anonymously, pushed him to enrol in the 7th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and led to his death on September 13th, 1915, (his birthday) on the battlefields of Gallipoli.

None of the bodies of these three gardeners ever made it home to Ireland, and there is no memorial to them in the gardens of the “Bots”. But I did find every one of their names (service number, rank, battalion, place of death) individually commemorated in the eight-volume records housed in the bookrooms of the INWMG. The bookrooms are also home to the original wooden Ginchy cross that once stood guard over the bloody battlefields of the Somme. A recently opened exhibition in the National Botanic Gardens, curated by Séamus O’Brien, also commemorates these gardeners’ lives, along with that of others from Kilmacurragh who died in the Great War. If you can, do try to pay both it and Lutyens’ Irish masterpiece a visit in the coming weeks.

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