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  • Monumental Commemoration of the Fallen in Ireland, North and South, 1920–60
  • John Turpin

Most public sculpture in Ireland in the decades from 1920 to 1960 was devoted to the commemoration of the fallen of the Anglo-Irish War and of World War I. The commemoration of those who died in those violent conflicts represents two sides of the same coin politically, and relates, in different ways, to the foundation of the Irish Free State and of Northern Ireland respectively. Generally speaking, the independence memorials are to be found in the Free State and underline an heroic foundation narrative. Although distributed throughout Ireland, World War I memorials are at their most numerous and most impressive—with the great exception of the Islandbridge Memorial in Dublin—in Northern Ireland. North and south, these monuments had different ideological associations for those who put them up and for those communities in which they were located. In all of the memorials there is a sacralization of memory.

The actual experience of conflict was one thing, but how it was remembered was another. The memorials concerned the myth and interpretive idea of what the struggle signified, and they linked the cult of the fallen hero to the sacrifice of Christ. The ordinary soldier or freedom fighter depicted in them was the bearer of meaning.1 Since the population of Ireland was so bitterly divided on political and religious grounds—Catholic nationalism versus Protestant Unionism—the resulting monuments expressed radically different perspectives. In the Free State, the monuments to independence symbolized victory over Britain, while for many the World War I memorials in the Free State were only unwanted reminders of British rule. In Northern Ireland, of course, there were no independence memorials. Memorials to the dead of the Great War played a centrally important role in defining the British identity of the Unionist majority. [End Page 107]

Through the ideology of the Free State ran three main strands: the Gaelic, the Catholic, and the republican. Of these, only the Catholic strand was generally shared, which accounts for the ubiquitous use of the Celtic cross as the preferred monumental form for both independence and World War I memorials. In the Free State, at the governmental level, there was little official desire to promote memorialization of the struggle for independence, at least in the 1920s and 1930s. Republicans bitterly disputed the patently nonrepublican character of the Free State, especially its governor general, symbol of the British monarch.

This ambiguity and uncertainty is evident in the 1923 commission by the first Cumann na nGaedhael government of a temporary cenotaph in front of Leinster House, seat of the Dáil and the Seanad. The government was then locked in deadly conflict with diehard republicans. George Atkinson (1891– 1984), head of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, designed a cenotaph made of temporary material and comprising a monumental Celtic cross and flanking pylons, thus asserting both a Gaelic and a Catholic identity.2 This monument also carried reliefs by Albert Power of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffiths, who had negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London in 1921. Republicans had rejected this treaty and later assassinated Collins. Four years later, the government added to the cenotaph a relief of Kevin O'Higgins, the minister of justice, who had been assassinated in 1927. The cenotaph was, therefore, a highly personalized, partisan, and political monument despite its inscription, in Gaelic, "For the glory of God and honour of Ireland," through which the independence struggle was sacralized. The essential point about any cenotaph is that it is an empty tomb whereby all who die can be remembered, as in London's masterful 1920 cenotaph at Whitehall by Edwin Lutyens. Not surprisingly, when Eamon de Valéra and Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932, his party rejected Atkinson's cenotaph as a national memorial and it was removed.

That Free State cenotaph was replaced in 1950 by a slender neutral obelisk designed by Raymond McGrath (1903–77). Its modernist design indicated a retreat to the formal language of classical commemoration, thus avoiding Catholic and Gaelic associations. However, some voiced criticism of McGrath's obelisk as "pagan" because it lacked the obvious Christian...


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