A visit to the War Memorial Gardens, tucked away along the southern bank of the Liffey at Islandbridge, is more poignant at this time of year than at any other. During the summer, the beauty of the roses and herbaceous borders in full bloom distracts from the reasons for the gardens’ inception. It was on November 11, 1918, that the bloody war in which 49,400 Irish perished was declared over. And a visit in November leaves me with a new appreciation for the skill of the architect of the gardens, Edwin Lutyens.
Soon after the war ended, the idea of a memorial for casualties from the island of Ireland was mooted. For many reasons, it took a while to come to a decision on the location. Constructed by ex-British and Irish Army servicemen, the gardens were completed by 1939, just as another war was breaking out.
The gardens are laid out formally, with avenues leading at angles from a temple beside the river. The central avenue, lined with lime trees, leads to a series of steps at the top of which can be seen the Great Cross. On climbing the steps you emerge onto a grass plateau, with a stone altar in the centre and two fountains on either side. Each fountain has an obelisk in the middle, symbolising candles. Two large cenotaphs, referred to as book houses, mark the entrance to the rose-filled sunken gardens.
The book houses represent the four provinces of Ireland, and were constructed to house the eight volumes of Harry Clarke’s illustrated books containing the names of Irish casualties – many of whom were never buried. Two of my great-uncles from Trim were killed within the first few weeks of the war; one was aged no more than 18.
It is said that Lutyens set out to create a peaceful site devoid of military symbolism, but the gardens could be said to represent the battlefield. The two opposing sunken gardens are composed of a series of circular terraces, trench-like, each level lined with a tangle of thorny rose stems, like barbed wire, the lawn between them a no-man’s-land.
The gardens at either end are symmetrical, possibly pointing to the fact that the men in the trenches on all sides were equal. The roses are laid out in ranks, in colours that one gardener said could depict the aftermath of battle, flesh-toned peach, pink and bloody red. The planting today is not exactly as it was, but a close replica.
The rose beds include roses such as Troika, Elizabeth of Glamis and the historically significant Peace, which arose in France before the start of the World War II and has the Irish rose Margaret McGredy in its parentage.
The herbaceous borders encircling the sunken gardens are predominantly planted in purples and whites with some historically significant plants. The gardens have also been likened to Roman amphitheatres where gladiators did battle. The imposing granite columns forming a pergola add to this feel. So it is no surprise that Acanthus is one plant of significance included in the borders. Acanthus leaves feature as the adornment of Corinthian columns in Greek and Roman architecture.
Another ancient plant is Monkshood, which is poisonous. There is also the Actaea with dark purple foliage; Pulmonaria with its spattered leaves; spiky Echinops; pure white Phlox; wiry Verbena bonariensis; and Romneya coulteri, with flowers that look like fried eggs. Romneya is named after Thomas Coulter, an Irish botanist. But there is also colour in the form of lupins.
Like those who fought in the war, the gardens do not get the recognition they deserve, but they are well frequented by locals and are a place of pilgrimage for many others whose ancestors were lost in the war. And, as with all gardens, seeing it in its bare winter state gives an appreciation for its structure – or lack of it for that matter. And while this is on a grand scale, it is obvious in this case, at the War Memorial Gardens, that a master has been at work.
- Now is a good time to plant up Amaryllis and Hippeastrum bulbs indoors for exotic-looking flowers at Christmas. They come in whites, creams, reds and striped variations.
- It’s a good time to plant fruit trees and bushes If you have fruit bushes, but want to increase your stock, hardwood cuttings can be taken as soon as the leaves have fallen.
- Today is a busy day at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, with fun scientific demonstrations from noon to 4pm, organised by the Institute of Physics in Ireland.
- And in the visitor centre, an exhibition of microphotography, entitled A Visual Odyssey into Invisible Worlds, is on display. Running until November 30. See botanicgardens.ie/news/events.htm