The Limerick War Memorial

Eleven years after the end of the First World War 1914-18, in which at least 3,000 officers, NCOs, and men from Limerick City and County died, a memorial in their honour and a place where the ex-servicemen and people of Limerick could come to pay homage was unveiled. For the first five years after the war, the only remembrance ceremony that took place was a Church of Ireland one, in St. Mary’s Cathedral. The disturbed conditions and violence of the War of Independence, followed by the Civil War meant that it was only in 1924 that for the first time, Roman Catholic ex-servicemen held a service of remembrance at St. Joseph’s Church. They continued to use this church until 1927, when the ceremony was transferred to St. John’s Cathedral.


By the time that Remembrance Day came in 1922, a memorial had been unveiled in St. Mary’s Cathedral to the ‘Men of Thomond who fell in the war 1914-1918’, close to the southern entrance door and a poppy wreath laid, however, because this had been erected in a Protestant church the attendance of Roman Catholic ex-servicemen was precluded. It was to be six years later in 1928 before another memorial was unveiled, this time in the Presbyterian Church, Lower Mallow Street, where a poppy wreath was also laid. In addition to these general ones, personal memorials had been erected by families to their sons who died in the war, most notably in St Mary’s Cathedral, where there are three of these, such as that to Captain Gordon Thompson Shaw killed in action on 28 August 1918, serving with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. He was the son of Alexander William Shaw, a leading bacon merchant of Limerick City at the time. The only memorial to a Roman Catholic soldier killed in the First World War in Limerick City and County is to be found in St. Munchin’s Roman Catholic Church. This memorial is in the form of a baptistery and was donated by Sir Vincent and Lady Nash to the memory of their son, Lieutenant James Haran Nash, who was killed serving with the Irish Guards on 27 March 1918.

Limerick however still lacked an inclusive monument where people irrespective of religious persuasion could commemorate their war dead. However, on 6 June 1928 a deputation consisting of two members of the Limerick Branch of the Legion of ex-Servicemen, Captains’ David Tidmarsh and Eric R. Shaw, who was also, a Borough Councillor, appeared before the Corporation Improvement Committee to support their application. To have a member of the Corporation who was also an ex-Serviceman on the deputation most certainly assisted in the process of getting an early hearing and also assisted in getting the proposal through to the whole house committee of the Corporation who met on 7 June 1928, and where a letter from the Chairman of the Limerick Branch of the British Legion, which included a scale drawing of Pery Square and the location of where they would like the memorial to be erected indicating hat it only entailed an area of four square yards. Following on from this permission was granted to erect the memorial in the Square by twenty-two votes to four, with Councillor C. Gilligan abstaining, giving his reason for doing so on the basis that he was ‘opposed to the memorial on national grounds’. He neglected to state that many nationalists fought and died in the war but then they were not nationalists according to those who shared this view, and a memorial would only serve to remind anyone viewing it of the involvement of Limerick men in the conflict that they wanted to airbrush from and sanitise Ireland’s history in accordance with their agenda. Those who voted against its erection in Pery Square wanted it situated in the People’s Park as ‘it would interfere with traffic, and especially in view of the fact that the line of railway to the docks will run through this thoroughfare’ and that the square was not ‘wide enough, and apart from that it is a very fine thoroughfare’. This argument was nullified when a report from the Borough Surveyor, J.J. Peacocke was read out stating that ‘the proposed memorial would in no way impede traffic passing through Pery Square. At either side of the site of the memorial there would be twenty-five feet of roadway, which was more than sufficient for the traffic passing through that area’. There may also have been an underlying motive in having it located in the People’s Park and that was ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Another Councillor, P. O’Callaghan, threatened to have it pulled down when it was erected. If the memorial had been situated in the People’s Park the public would not have had access to it after the gates of the park were closed. Another indication that a public war memorial was going to be erected in Limerick was made at an Armistice dinner held at the British Legion Hall, Lower Hartstonge Street on Wednesday 14 November 1928 when the Chairman of the Irish Legion Mr. A. P. Connolly declared that ‘they were at last to have their war memorial in Limerick, a fact that reflected honour on the generous people of that city and county. Such a memorial would keep the grand ideal for which the men had fallen before them, and be an inspiration to them in the future’.

The first tangible evidence that matters were well advanced for the erection of a monument in Limerick came a year later. On 2 November 1929 two advertisements were published in the Limerick Chronicle one, declaring that the war memorial was going to be erected in Pery Square, ‘in the form of the “Cross of Sacrifice”, which stands in nearly every War Graves Cemetery throughout the World’, and that public subscriptions small or large were most welcome. The other indicated that the ceremony of unveiling the Limerick War Memorial was to take place on 10 November 1929. On 9 November another advertisement gave the format for the parade that was to take place from St. John’s Cathedral. It also published the first subscribers’ list showing that £357.10s.0d. had been contributed towards the amount required of £550. The willingness of people to subscribe is shown by a further list, published a month later, showing that the amount contributed had risen to £469.1s.0d, leaving only an outstanding debt, of £80.19s.0d. Of the one hundred and fifty seven subscribers named many had had relatives killed in the war or had served during the conflict or just subscribed because they thought that the erection of such a memorial was a worthy cause. The individual amounts subscribed were not disclosed, signifying that the subscriptions paid whether small or large were of equal importance. Although no further lists were published, it is safe to assume that the remainder was donated and the debt paid in full.

On Sunday 10 November 1929, the day of the unveiling, both Catholic and Protestant ex-servicemen held separate services as was the case in previous years, after which they marched to the memorial. The Protestant service was held in St. Mary’s Cathedral where ‘the sacred edifice had been filled to overflowing by a congregation representing all Protestant denominations in [the] city and county’ many of whom were ex-Servicemen, wearing their medals and decorations and a wreath on behalf of the Limerick Branch of the British Legion was laid at the Thomond War Memorial by Major-General Sir George Franks, K.C.B. The memorial mass was held in St John’s Cathedral after which least six hundred ex-Servicemen, preceded by the Sarsfield Fife and Drum Band marched from John’s Square to Pery Square via William Street and Glentworth Street where a large assembly of people had gathered, many of whom were women wearing their deceased husband’s, father’s or brother’s medals and decorations.

The site for the memorial, which stood twenty feet in height, and was set upon an octagonal base with a bronze sword upon its shaft, had been granted by the City Council, and was located in the middle of the square directly opposite the Carnegie Library. It was designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield and constructed by Messrs C.W. Harrison and Sons, a Dublin firm, and was a larger version of the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’, which is located in nearly every Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery throughout the world. It was built of finely chiselled white Irish granite, of which one of the parts is mica, a material that sparkles in the sun or artificial light and bore the following inscription:

To the glory of God, and to the memory of 3,000 officers, N.C.O.’s, and men of Limerick City and County who fell in the Great War, 1914-18. They died in every quarter of the earth and on its seas, and their names have with reverence and love been inscribed on our rolls of honour. Most of them lie buried in the lands of our Allies, who have set aside their resting place in honour for ever.

Following the playing of the ‘Last Post’ and two minutes silence, Major-General Sir William Hickie, K.C.B., President of the British Legion in the Free State who had commanded the 16th Irish Division in France during the First World War and was therefore well known to and respected by the general body of the ex-Servicemen present, stood on the steps at the pedestal and unveiled the Cross which had been covered with a purple drape, which symbolized the sacrifice of the men that the memorial commemorated.
In his address, he stressed that the sacrifice of the men to whom the memorial was erected was made for the highest motives and he made particular mention of the defence of Belgium. He also insisted that the basic motivation of the Allies in going to war had been honourable and made a plea for tolerance and understanding of differing points of view which he noted were absent in contemporary Ireland but which the occasion showed existed, as they always had, in Limerick:

I am most grateful for the high honour which has been done me to-day by the representatives of my comrades, the ex-Servicemen of Limerick, in asking me to come here to-day and to unveil your beautiful memorial. It is most fitting that this ancient city should have within its boundaries a monument which will not only stand to the glorious memory of those of her gallant sons who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and justice in the Great War, but will also serve to remind everyone, both citizens and visitors alike, of the great number of men from the County of Limerick, and from this its capital city, who took a distinguished part in the campaign of the Great War, and of the exemplary and gallant manner in which they carried out their self imposed duties. I congratulate you on the choice of this simple and dignified design. I congratulate everyone who has been connected with this undertaking – the sculptor and his assistants, the committee, and all of those whose sympathy and support have enabled this work to be carried to so successful a conclusion: and on my own behalf, and in the name of the ex-Servicemen, whom I represent, especially do I thank the City Fathers for their choice and the donation of this site. What we want most in Ireland to-day is that brotherly spirit which will recognise that we are all Irishmen of one great family, who are striving according to our lights, to do our best for the country which we love. Opinions and methods may differ, but nothing is to be gained by unkind criticism, by harsh words, or by wilful misunderstanding. Limerick has always set an example of that broadmindedness and of that kindly spirit which are also, so noticeably absent at times from our public life. This monument has been erected to three thousand Limerick men who fell in the Great War, as I have said, in the cause of right and justice. I know it is frequently said that it was not for these causes that the Allies entered the war. Personally, I believe that it was, and that if the Central Powers had respected the neutrality of Belgium that France and Russia would have stood alone. But even if I were prepared to concede that there were other causes which induced some of the Allies to take to the field, I emphatically assert that the men of Ireland, who fought with them, did so solely for the cause of right and justice, and for the integrity of Belgium. The cross now takes its place with the three crosses of Irish granite which stand respectively at Wytschaete in Flanders, at Guillemont and on the Somme in France and on the Serbian heights above Lake Doiran, as lasting memorials to those fifty thousand of our comrades who went out and who did not come back. To the Glory of God, to the honour of Ireland, in all reverence, I have unveiled this memorial to those gallant soldiers and to their supreme sacrifice.

Following his speech, he was to lay the first wreath as President of the British Legion in the Free State, wreaths were then laid by the Vice-Presidents, Area Council, the Limerick, Nenagh, Ennis and Croom Branches of the British Legion, also the bishop, clergy and the people of the Church of Ireland the various regimental ex-Servicemen’s associations such as the Leinster Regiment, Irish Guards, Royal Army Medical Corps, South Irish Horse, Navy ex-Servicemen and individuals such as T. O’Dwyer, mother and family, P. Fitzgerald, Miss Foran, Miss Cowell, Mrs Hogan and Mr. Pegum all of whom had relatives who died in the war. While no wreath was laid on behalf of the Catholic Church quite a number of clergy were present at the ceremony, some of whom were ex-Chaplains to the army during the war. There was no official representation by the City Council at the ceremony. Although they had received an official invitation from the Limerick Branch of the British Legion to attend the ceremony, it was declined due to the nature of the voting when it was put to the Council consisting of nineteen members, including the Mayor. The Mayor had decided that the vote to officially attend was unsuccessful ‘when four members voted for not accepting the invitation and seven for accepting. Seven members did not vote’ and the Mayor did not vote. Some members intimated that members should be free to decide whether to attend in a private capacity or not. The only member of the Council that did attend in a private capacity was Alderman P. O’Flynn, and the Mayor, Councillor Michael Keyes, who had attended a Legion dinner the previous year at which he said that ‘he felt it his duty to be present at that gathering of Limerick men, because as Mayor he recognised he was not Mayor of any section or class. His function was to help to advance the interest of the citizens without distinction’ was noticeable by his absence. The attendance of the mayor and Council in an official capacity at the unveiling ceremony was obviously a step too far. It was not to be until 1991, sixty-two years after the unveiling before the mayor; Alderman Jim Kemmy attended and laid on behalf of the City Council a wreath, thereby establishing a precedent, which has continued to this day. The “Reveille” was sounded after the wreath laying ceremony was concluded and the ex-Servicemen paraded to the Legion Hall in Lower Hartstonge Street where they were dismissed.

The ex-Servicemen now had a place to go to pay homage to their comrades who died during the war. Each year following its unveiling, with the exception of the years 1939-45, the ex-Servicemen assembled at the Cross on the nearest Sunday to the eleventh day of November, the date of the end of the war. After the Second World War a plaque was added to the memorial to commemorate the men from Limerick City and County who were killed in action serving with the Allies during that conflict. Not everyone agreed with what the memorial symbolised or the sentiments expressed on it and during the early hours of Wednesday morning 7 August 1957 it was destroyed by an explosion. The Honorary Secretary of the Limerick Branch of the British Legion, Mr. John Ring, declared that ‘it is regrettable that this should have happened. The memorial had no political significance and was merely there to commemorate our Limerick men who were killed in the First World War and also in the Second World War. That was the only purpose of it’. The day after the explosion, the Limerick Chronicle published a disclaimer that it had received from ‘the local Secretary of a Proscribed organisation stating that the organisation was not responsible for the blowing up of the War Memorial and that no member of the Republican Movement was involved in the incident’. No group or individuals ever took responsibility for this action and no body was apprehended for it, though its occurrence during the IRA border campaign pointed to the most likely source. The death of Limerick man Seán Sabhat the previous January may also be a relevant factor. However, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, a new memorial was built on the base of the old one. Both the earlier and present structures are frequently and incorrectly described as a cenotaph. This word applies to a tomb like structure, honouring a soldier who is buried elsewhere, from its original Greek derivation of kenos (empty) and taphos (tomb) and is not an accurate term for the limestone memorial cross that now honours the dead of Limerick City and County of both world wars in Pery Square.

Tadhg Moloney