Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Writer Coral Atkinson remembers her Father and his militaria on Anzac day
The Irish National War Memorial Gardens
As something of a
pacifist I am an unlikely enthusiast for a war memorial, but then, like many
things emanating from Ireland, the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, at
Islandbridge, in Dublin, is also a surprise.
with the memorial garden begins with my father, the late Cyril Atkinson (left), who
was a collector of militaria.Recollection places him bent over a newspaper covered kitchen table, in
our Christchurch house; a tin of Brasso in one hand, a rag in the other --
cleaning the butt mask of a duelling pistol, the grip of a sword or, more
frequently, one of his antique military cap badges. His most prized cap badges
were his collection of those belonging to Irish regiments in the British army;
as an ex-Royal Artillery officer in World War II, and an immigrant from
Ireland, he had a sentimental regard for these objects. The smaller badges he
framed on a green velvet mount, while the larger ones, which originated on the
outlandish shakos of the Napoleonic period, hung in rows on the panelled walls
of our twenties bungalow.
My father died in
the early 1990s, and some years later, when I was planning a trip to Ireland,
my mother, sitting forward in her lazy-boy chair, said, ‘Do you think you could
take those badges of the Irish regiments back with you? Cyril was always so
keen they should be returned.’
Previously I had
never paid much attention to the badges, seeing them merely as symbols of the
whole unfortunate grab-bag of exploitative British imperialism, but this
changed following my father’s death and the collection acquired a softer, more
which comprised about twenty items spanning a period from the Peninsula Wars of
the early 19th century to the end of World War I, had undoubted monetary value.
But, as the metal badges rattled about in my suitcase, I did wonder what
exactly I was to do with them.I could
hand them over to a museum, but given the nature of Ireland’s history I feared
that these emblems of the country’s colonised past might well result in
banishment to some gulag for politically embarrassing relics.Short of selling them, which would in no way
ensure the badges stayed in Ireland, or abandoning the box under a seat in St.
Stephen’s Green, the options didn’t look promising.
In Dublin I
flicked through the telephone directory, hoping for inspiration. My eye fell on
the British Legion. I rang the number
and told my tale; they would take them but there seemed no enthusiasm for the
offer. I imagined the collection consigned to a desk drawer, wood stained with
ink from long dead soldiers’ dip pens, keeping company with torn ration books
and gravy coloured 1914 propaganda postcards, showing luckless Belgians fleeing
from Wagnerian Huns. I was sure I could do better.
Irish friend, Caroline said, ‘there’s some sort of war memorial garden near the
Phoenix Park; it’s down by the Liffey. Try there.’
Next morning, I
found a contact number and rang it. I was directed to another number and
redirected again. Eventually I spoke to a charming, very English sounding
Irishman, a former officer with the elite Irish Guards (British) regiment, now
working in Dublin as a share broker.
‘ Where are you?’
‘ Dundrum,’ I
’ I’ll be right
over and take you to Islandbridge. We’re trying to build up a small museum
there and we’d love to have your father’s collection, but you must decide
yourself if it is the right place,’ he said.
As we drove, the
former Guards officer told me something of the place. The war memorial’s past,
like Ireland’s own history, had been somewhat chequered. Originally envisaged
in 1919, the garden was designed by the famous architect Edward Lutyens to
remember the 49,400 Irishmen who died serving in the British forces in World
War 1. It was hardly an auspicious time for such an undertaking, the war of
independence against England was raging in Ireland, and no sooner was that over
and Ireland gained autonomy as a Free State in 1922, when the civil war broke
out. Finally, in the depression of the 1930s, the building of the memorial
garden began, with unemployed Irish ex-soldiers from both the British and the
new Irish national army doing much of the work. The memorial was opened in
1938, but with World War II- in Ireland endearingly called,
starting the following year, coupled with the residual bitterness of feeling
against England, up-keep was not a priority. The once grand garden gradually
sank under a tangled jungle of nettles and brambles, and for many years the
place was totally neglected.
Times changed and
attitudes mellowed; the 1980s brought new more positive feelings towards
Britain and a growing holistic view of Ireland’s past. The memorial was
painstakingly renovated and the gardens restored to their original design. The
names of Irish servicemen who died in World War II, and in subsequent
deployment in the Irish army under United Nations’ command, were inscribed on
the huge Wicklow granite memorial cross. The memorial was no longer associated
with foreign rule; it had become truly national.
My guide parked
the car and we went in to the memorial. It was one of those ambivalent Irish
days, alternating between a dazzle of sunshine and a smear of rain. The clouds,
like outsized white bloomers, flapped fatly about the sky and the grass looked
Stretching on all
sides was a huge, carefully tended garden, with circular fountains, stone
pergolas and four squat book rooms or pavilions at either corner. The
architecture, which was impressively 1920s Empire style, seemed reminiscent of
Queen Mary, erect and stately in her toque and pearls.
‘ I’ll show you
our little museum,’ my guide said.
We went into one
of the bookrooms, where there were display cases containing artefacts connected
with Irish regimental history. The bookrooms originally housed Henry Clarke’s
Arts and Crafts style illustrated memorial books, which listed the names of all
the Irish World War I dead. Technology had now taken over and a park ranger
offered me the details of any Irish soldier who died in World War 1.
‘ Give us a name,
someone in your family who fell,’ he said. For a moment my mind went blank and
then I remembered the photograph, hanging in an elderly relation’s house when I
was a child in Dublin. It was of a young man in army uniform; the heavy
picture- frame perennially decorated by a poppy,
‘ Bobby Dilworth,’
I said, and within a few moments I was holding his details on a copy of a page
from the memorial book.
Coral Atkinson is a New Zealand Irish writer and adult educator, living in Governors Bay, in Canterbury. Read about her books, and her other writing. Coral Atkinson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org