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War Memorials

War memorial publications


Some war memorials are actual books. After the First World War, the collection and careful recording for posterity of the names of men and women who had died (and sometimes also those who had served) was very widespread indeed. Institutions, especially schools and colleges, but also sporting clubs and commercial firms, gathered names together and published them in books, as well as placing them on permanent, fixed memorials. The greatest of these in Ireland is Ireland’s Memorial Records, a magnificent series of eight volumes which lists what it describes as the 49,435 ‘known dead’, ‘being the names of Irishmen who fell in the Great European War, 1914-1918’. From 1919 onwards over £50,000 was raised for an ‘Irish National War Memorial’, which eventually was built at Islandbridge along the River Liffey in what was then the western outskirts of Dublin. In the early 1920s, however, £5,000 was spent on collecting the names of the dead and publishing them in Ireland’s Memorial Records. Only one hundred copies of the set were printed ‘for distribution through the principal libraries of the country’. One of these precious sets is preserved for posterity in the Ulster Historical Foundation library, and there are others in, for example, the National Library of Ireland, and the municipal libraries in Belfast and Dublin.


The volumes themselves are works of art. Their printing, decoration and binding was ‘carried out by Irish artists and workers of the highest reputation and efficiency’. The most remarkable feature of the volumes are the ‘beautiful symbolical borders’ designed by the artist Harry Clarke, best-known for his work in stained glass. Clarke provided a title page and seven page borders, repeated throughout the volumes, which ‘incorporate Celtic and Art deco motifs, battle scenes in silhouette, medals, insignia and religious and mythological, all drawn in pen and ink’.7 The pages contain an unexpected mixture of ‘art’ and modern war, allegorical figures and Celtic-type designs side by side with battleships, tanks, planes and machine guns.


Ireland’s Memorial Records contains much useful information for the family historian: name, army regimental number; rank, unit, date and circumstances of death (usually ‘killed in action’ or ‘died of wounds’), and, in many cases, place of birth. Investigation of this last information reveals that many of the men included in the volume were not born in Ireland, nor were they apparently of Irish extraction. What the compilers did was to include every man who died while serving with an Irish unit, whether he himself was ‘Irish’ or not. The majority of those who served in the First World War, served in infantry formations. The Irish units were the Irish Guards, which recruited from all over the island, and eight other Irish infantry regiments of the line, which (theoretically at least) recruited from specific areas in Ireland. There is a list of these at the end showing the regimental areas. During the First World War, however, because of shortfalls in recruiting in Ireland many non-Irishmen were drafted into the battalions. But these men find their place alongside ‘native’ Irishmen’ in Ireland’s Memorial Records. In addition, the compilers included anyone serving in a non-Irish formation (including the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force) who appeared to have some Irish link. So the 50,000 or so (which is often cited as the ‘official’ number of Ireland’s First World War dead) in Ireland’s Memorial Records includes many who are not strictly ‘Irish’. Among the records, too, are those of Irish-born men serving with British Empire forces, such as the Canadian Army or ‘ANZAC’, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The actual number of ‘Irish war dead’, therefore, is probably closer to 30,000 than 50,000.


In recent years some edited lists of local war dead have been published. Robert Thompson has prepared two fascinating and useful volumes: Bushmills Heroes, 1914-1918 and Ballymoney Heroes, 1914-1918. The Bushmills volume contains details of 96 men, arranged chronologically, while the Ballymoney one has over 300 names. Both are very well illustrated and give thumbnail sketches of the individuals concerned. Thompson was prompted to prepare the Ballymoney list when he discovered that there were no names at all on the Ballymoney war memorial. A similar reason lies behind the preparation of an important listing of Newry’s War Dead, prepared by Colin Moffett. This impressive volume lists 373 individuals from the Newry area who died in both world wars, and, unlike most conventional war memorials, includes merchant mariners and civilian casualties, as well as service personnel. Newry’s War Dead is, in fact, an admirable model for any locality to follow.

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