The Tree of Remembrance in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin was described last night as much more than a memorial to those who had fallen in the first World War.
"We have just been through the most terrible century and we must hope there is not another like it," said the novelist Jennifer Johnston who unveiled the tree and opened the "Lives Remembered" exhibition in the cathedral, and also online, of which the tree is the centrepiece.
The tree, a stark and leafless distressed metal sculpture that evokes No Man’s Land on the western front, was not merely a memorial to “the wretched Irish” who fell in that war, but to everyone, of whatever nationality or race, killed in all wars, she said.
Johnston was invited to open the exhibition because of her personal connection to the cathedral (her father, the playwright Denis Johnston, is buried in the cathedral graveyard) and because, as Dean Victor Stacey remarked, it was the 40th anniversary of the publication of her novel
How Many Miles to Babylon?
, which tells the story of two Wicklow boys who enlist during the war.
Johnston lost an uncle, Billy Richards, in the conflict and, last night, she quoted from a letter he wrote to his father from the eastern front in August 1915. In the short letter, Richards describes the carnage he witnesses around him but notes: "After yesterday, I have a feeling I shall get through this 'job'."
But, five days later, he was killed, his letter arriving at the family home in Ireland after his death. He was buried in Gallipoli by Canon McClean, a Church of Ireland pastor who ministered closely on the battlefield with his Catholic counterpart.
Ms Johnston also read from her unpublished short story, Seventeen Trees, which was inspired by the story of a French village whose 17 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
‘Wailing of the rain’
She quoted also from
Lament for Thomas MacDonagh
by the poet Francis Ledwidge who died in the first World War, the first verse of which is:
He shall not hear the bittern cry In the wild sky, where he is lain, Nor voices of the sweeter birds, Above the wailing of the rain
Several hundred people were invited to the ceremony in the cathedral’s north transept where the tree is located. The man who designed it, cathedral education officer Andrew Smith, paid tribute to ironworks Bisgood Bagnall, who he developed his idea with to make it a reality.
The tree, he said, symbolised “an incredibly important moment in European history” and was a counterpoint to the Tree of Life in the transept’s main stained glass window display above it.
Visitors are invited to tie a message to the tree. Mr Smith invited Ms Johnston to write the first message, marking the formal opening.
“Billy Richards,” she wrote, “I would love to have known you.”
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