Eleventh Hour

I write this at 11am on the 11th November 2018 – exactly 100 years since the ending of The Great War. I have been aware of the significance of this moment of remembrance since my childhood: wherever we were at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we had to stop what we were doing and be silent for two minutes. This – and the horrors of war – have been in my psyche forever.

Growing up in Britain there was always that awareness of the two world wars, and the losses and sacrifices that they caused: every town and village has its war memorial, giving the names of those who died. That first – Great – war also affected Ireland but, until quite recently, it seems those Irish people who died because of it have received scant commemoration. But – as always in Ireland – once you begin to turn over the stones you do find the history; today’s post looks at just a few examples of memories and commemorations of the 1914 – 1918 conflict.

Firstly, the poetry. Yeats wrote of war poets – “We have no gift to set a statesman right.” I think he was wrong – poets and artists are probably most able to express emotions about war and its outrages in ways that others can approach and embrace. Francis Ledwidge, although an ardent Irish nationalist, states that he . . . joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions . . . Only a poet, surely, could describe an army as feminine. Ledwidge gave his life in pursuit of the cause: he was blown to pieces at Ypres on 31 July 1917. A year previously his friend, Irish patriot (and poet) Thomas MacDonagh, was executed (for his part in the 1916 rising) by soldiers in the same uniform that Ledwidge was wearing. The irony is only compounded by the fact that the poet’s Lament for Thomas MacDonagh can be seen now as Ledwidge writing on his own fate:

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
  
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
  
But when the dark cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Last week saw the opening of a new exhibition at the Cork Public Museum – Cork 1918: Victory, Virus and Votes. There are photographs, posters and artefacts – all very well displayed – telling the story of the involvement of people from Cork in the Great War, the political fallout from the War and the aftermath of the world wide Spanish Flu epidemic which claimed millions of victims. It’s a must-see exhibition and congratulations are due to Dan Breen and his dedicated team at the museum for bringing it to fruition at this appropriate time. The images above and below are from the new exhibition.

Today Finola is thinking about her grandfather – Sgt William Owen Roberts – who served in the Welsh Fusiliers and had a distinguished military career which included the Boer War and the Chinese Boxer War. He served in the Great War and was captured and interned in Germany and Holland. He contracted and died of the Spanish Flu on 15th November, 1918 – just a few days after the end of the conflict – at the age of 39. His grave is in The Hague.

There can be only a few families not affected by the wars of the twentieth century. My own Uncle Jack died in a prison camp in the 1940s, while my mother’s mother was a victim of the flu epidemic, dying in 1918 and effectively orphaning my mother (aged four) and her three siblings, as their father was away serving in the army.

Tucked away in burial grounds around Ireland are the graves of those who died in Europe between 1914 and 1918 in that awful war – and of those who died subsequently as a result of injuries and mental stress arising from the war. We mark them out on our travels around the country. The graves – erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – are of a distinctive uniform design, originated by the architect Edwin Lutyens (who also designed the great Thiepval Memorial in France, the largest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world, inscribed with over 72,000 names). The sheer magnitude of that number – people of whom no trace is left other than a name carved on stone – is bewildering. The image below of Thiepval is courtesy of the CWGC.

Ireland does now have its own dedicated national war memorial to commemorate the Irish men and women who died during the First World War. The idea was first mooted in 1919 but took years to gestate. Lutyens was commissioned to design formal gardens in Islandbridge, Co Dublin, in the early 1930s, and construction work was largely completed in 1937, following by the establishment of trees and landscaping, an essential element of the design. The 1939 – 45 war in Europe delayed the opening of the memorial, which languished and suffered from decay and neglect for years after that. It wasn’t until 10th December, 1980 – following restoration by the Office of Public Works – that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens were formally dedicated, and they are now maintained to a high standard. As a point of interest, the gardens include classical pavilions – ‘Bookrooms’ – designed to house the memorial record illustrated by Harry Clarke and inscribed with the names of the 49,400 Irish soldiers lost during the Great War. The image of the memorial gardens below is by Diego Lopez Sebastian. The ‘tailpiece’ is a Harry Clarke Illustration from Ireland’s Memorial Records.

For us, perhaps it’s those tucked-away and often forgotten graves in the corners of Irish cemeteries that are the most poignant. We know that each one tells a story: we can’t know that story – but hopefully there is always somebody who does know – and who passes on the memories to future generations.

Above: two tucked-away West Cork war graves. The left-hand picture has an example, lower left, and is at Abbeymahon Graveyard, Courtmacsherry. On the right is an example at the ancient burial ground of Castlehaven.

4 thoughts

  1. Thank you, Robert, for reminding us that Irish men fought in the Great War, as well. As a teenage American studying in Oxford one Summer long ago, I was struck by the big wall plaque listing names of college men who’d died. Made it very personal, somehow. And of course the writings of those poets and Vera Britten….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shelley. Your comment sent me to look up Vera Brittain: I must read her… It’s strange that such horrors as WW1 led to great creativity. I was always impressed with the poems of Wilfred Owen, and Benjamin Britten’s use of those in his magnificent War Requiem.

      Like

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