Irish National War Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge, Dublin

Published in Gems of Architecture, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Volume 22

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens is an architecturally designed, classically composed garden, arranged symmetrically on a north–south axis. (OPW)

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens is an architecturally designed, classically composed garden, arranged symmetrically on a north–south axis. (OPW)

A memorial committee was set up in Dublin in July 1919 with the purpose of creating an all-Ireland national war memorial to commemorate Irish soldiers who died in the First World War. It raised close to £50,000 by public appeal and considered many proposals, including a monument in Merrion Square and a memorial arch at the entrance to the Phoenix Park. The new Irish government, while sympathetic, was ambivalent owing to the political sensitivities of the time.

After ten frustrating years, in 1929 Sir Andrew Jameson of the memorial committee made representations to the head of government, W.T. Cosgrave, asking for help in securing a site. Cosgrave contacted the OPW to see whether they had any suitable public lands available adjacent to the Phoenix Park. The OPW’s principal architect, T.J. Byrne, identified the Islandbridge site on 25 acres and made an outline proposal for its layout.

Byrne’s proposal for a monumental park, incorporating a memorial garden to be laid out as a ‘square open space of nine acres with ceremonial approaches, trees, shrubs and flower beds around a suitable monument’, was accepted by Cosgrave, his cabinet and the memorial committee. In a letter to Jameson, Cosgrave expressed regret at the many delays, stating: ‘It is in the main a big question of remembrance and honour to the dead’. He also advised that, as the garden was to be within a new public park, the government would seek approval from the Dáil, not only for the site but also for ‘a substantial sum of money’ for laying out the park and its subsequent maintenance to add to the existing funds.

Sir Andrew Jameson secured the design services of the distinguished English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944), chief architect to the Imperial War Graves Commission and designer of the London Cenotaph. Lutyens was also a prominent country house architect and landscape designer. He was no stranger to Ireland when he visited in 1930: he had previously worked on Lambay Island, Howth Castle and Heywood Gardens. Lutyens was impressed with the site and quickly prepared his design.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens is an architecturally designed, classically composed garden, arranged symmetrically on a north–south axis. The main oval terrace is both enclosed by stone walls and piers and opened out by pergolas and sunken retaining walls. The central War Stone, flanked by two stone fountains, is set into a large, smooth lawn. The repetition of circular motifs creates a harmonious whole. Four ‘Bookrooms’ representing the four provinces are set in pairs at either end of the oval terrace. They originally contained books of remembrance designed by Harry Clarke and inscribed with the names of the dead Irish soldiers. These Bookrooms, designed as classical stone pavilions, are connected by pergolas overlooking the two sunken rose gardens. Lutyens incorporated tree-lined avenues and formal lines of flowering trees, shrubs and flowers. A proposed bridge over the Liffey with a footway to the Phoenix Park was omitted, however, because of the cost.

The OPW was involved in the construction and supervision of the project. Work began in 1932, employing 50% British and 50% Irish ex-servicemen. No machinery was used in the massive earth-moving, which took two years. Granite came from Ballyknockan and Barnaculla quarries and the carved stonework was by Irish stonemasons. Building was completed in 1937, followed by the planting of trees and shrubs by Phoenix Park staff.

Like the inception of the pro-ject, the formal opening of the gardens suffered delays: de Valera had set a date for summer 1939, but World War II intervened. Bad luck continued with dereliction in the 1960s. Finally, after restoration by the OPW, the Memorial Gardens were formally dedicated on 10 September 1988 by representatives of the four main Irish churches. Today the gardens provide a special place for remembrance ceremonies and for enjoyment by the public. They are managed to a high standard by the OPW National Historic Properties in conjunction with the National War Memorial Committee.

Elizabeth Morgan is Senior Landcape Conservation Architect, OPW Architectural Services, Dublin. Series based on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage’s ‘building of the month’,


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