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War Memorials

The design and placing of memorials


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Not all ‘war memorials’ are stone and bronze monuments. In the aftermath of the Great War there was a lively debate about what might constitute a ‘war memorial’ and what particular design might be appropriate. The conventional war memorial, as we have seen, is a public monument, perhaps a statue of a soldier, a cross, or an obelisk. Celtic crosses were popular in what is now the Republic, and may be found in Bray (Co. Wicklow), Sligo, Nenagh (Co. Tipperary), Castlebellingham and Drogheda (both Co. Louth). There are rather fewer in Northern Ireland, Limavady (Co. Londonderry) and Hillsborough (Co. Down) being two examples. Soldiers in various poses are common in the North: fighting (Bushmills, Co. Antrim), ‘at the ready’ with bayonet fixed (Dromore, Co. Down), cheering (a very rare pose, but it can be found in Banbridge, Co. Down), in mourning, with rifle reversed (Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh), with a flag (Dungannon, Co. Tyrone), or just standing, sometimes in a relaxed pose (Ballywalter, Co. Down). Then there are angels, as in Portadown and Lurgan (Co. Armagh) or Derry City (which also has a soldier and a sailor), and symbolical female figures, as in Portrush (Co. Londonderry) and on the Bangor (Co. Down) memorial. Other kinds of symbolical memorials include cenotaphs (Belfast, Cookstown (Co. Tyrone) and Newry (Co. Down)), obelisks, as in Ballycastle and Newtownabbey (Co. Antrim), Donaghadee and Kilkeel (Co. Down), clocks (Waringstown and Rathfriland (Co. Down)), a curious Celtic Romanesque structure in Port Laoise (Co. Laois) and a handsome stone lion in Newcastle (Co. Down).

 

But there are other types of memorial, and they reflect a sometimes very passionate debate about what was most suitable as a memorial. Many people thought that a memorial should not just be a symbolic monument, but should have some practical use, either as a building of some sort, or, perhaps, as scholarships or other support for the families of the fallen.

 

In Ireland a number of practical schemes were proposed.2 Technical colleges or ‘institutes’ of various sorts were quite popular: they were suggested in a number of places and built in Limavady and Newry. In both places a symbolic memorial was subsequently erected: a Celtic cross in Limavady, and a loose copy of the Whitehall cenotaph in Newry. Some localities combined symbolism with a practical benefit. War memorial parks, with monuments, were established in Ballymena and Ballyclare (Co. Antrim), where a children’s playground was specially included when the park was dedicated in November 1930. War memorial halls were erected in Coagh (Co. Tyrone) and Waringstown (Co. Down), and in Cavan a new operating theatre for the County Infirmary was built. On Eden Quay in Dublin is a substantial ‘Seamen’s Institute’ (now used by the Salvation Army), put up as ‘A tribute to the war service of seamen 1914-1919’. It included a special memorial hall for the mail steamer RMS Leinster, torpedoed off Dublin Bay in October 1918 with the loss of five hundred lives.

 

Churches and institutions often erected ‘war memorial’ halls and other buildings. Portora Royal School in Enniskillen put up memorial swimming baths and Trinity College, Dublin, built a new reading room for the College library. The largest practical memorial was the Presbyterian War Memorial Hostel in Belfast, opened in 1926 to commemorate the 26,000 Irish Presbyterians who had served in the war. The hostel provided residential accommodation for 200 young men and women and protect them from the terrors and temptations of the big city. Times change, and by the end of the twentieth century the hostel had been closed and the Presbyterian War Memorial Committee now funds a home for senior citizens. But the money raised is still providing a practical benefit.

 

The majority of war memorials, however, are symbolic and their particular location in cities, towns and villages itself symbolises the high importance of what they commemorate. The first place to look for a war memorial is in the centre of any place. The most outstanding of all the Irish municipal war memorials, that in Derry, stands at the centre of the Diamond, plumb in the middle of the old city. The cenotaph in Belfast is right next to the City Hall. The same applies to smaller places. The Portrush (Co. Londonderry) war memorial is outside the old town hall, as are those in Newry and Newcastle (Co. Down). Seaside memorials are often in a prominent place along the seafront, for example, Portstewart (Co. Londonderry), Groomsport and Donaghadee (Co. Down).

 

Sometimes the locating of a war memorial prompted local discussion. The original idea in Bangor (Co. Down) was to have the memorial in Main Street, but this was rejected on the grounds that it might be a ‘traffic hazard’, and the imposing memorial was eventually erected in Ward Park. Several central Dublin sites were proposed for the Irish National War Memorial – College Green, Merrion Square and Parnell Square, among others – before a less prominent location at Islandbridge was chosen. In Sligo the memorial was scheduled to be placed in a central site outside the Ulster Bank in Stephen Street by the bridge across the river Garavogue. Because it was directly over a water main the site was deemed unsuitable and the memorial was put up on the edge of the city, at what is now the junction of Mail Coach Road and Pearse (formerly Albert) Road. Clearly the technology of monument construction has improved over the years, for on the original site now stand a large bronze statue of W. B. Yeats.

 

Other memorials have been moved. The Larne memorial was originally outside the Laharna Hotel (which is long since closed, though the building remains) and near the Stranraer ferry terminal, where it would have been seen by thousands of travellers passing by. Apparently a traffic hazard, it was moved some years ago to Inver Park, where motorists on the elevated section of the road to Belfast can get a fleeting glimpse of it as they speed by. In Omagh, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers’ Boer War memorial was moved in February 1964, apparently for the same reason, from outside the Court House in High Street to the by-pass by the river.

 

There are memorials whose locations are doubly significant. In Kilrea (Co. Londonderry) there is a handsome obelisk, centrally situated in the middle of the Diamond. It is over an old well, which, it is said, before the war had been a ‘contested space’ where Protestant and Catholic youths would meet to challenge each other and even fight. By placing the memorial there it was hoped to defuse this tradition. The memorial in Drogheda (Co. Louth) is on the Dublin road, rising away from the town centre on the south bank of the River Boyne. This is not a central location, but it is almost equidistant between the old army barracks and the railway station. One explanation of its precise location is that every soldier who joined up in Drogheda would have passed that point on his way to the battle front. The question of location arose wherever in the world war memorials were being erected, and the stories of memorials, for example throughout the British Empire, parallel those of Irish monuments. The location of the war memorial in Palmerston North in New Zealand was so hotly debated that one joker suggested the memorial should be put on wheels to please everybody.3

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