It’s a fine piece of sculpture but the Cenotaph (defined as a monument to a person or persons interred at another location) in the grounds of Leinster House receives little public or media attention — in part this is because of its location behind the railings at Leinster Lawn, on Merrion Square West. Access to our national parliament and its surroundings is largely restricted to members of the Dáil and Seanad Éireann, accredited journalists, and members of the Oireachtas support staff. Under normal circumstances, the general public can take part in guided tours, but these have been suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
An obelisk is defined as “a tapering stone pillar” and this one is made of granite, stretching to 18.3 metres in height and topped with a gilt bronze flame, An Claidheamh Soluis (“The Sword of Light”), which features in Gaelic and nationalist mythology and was the title of a newspaper edited by 1916 Rising leader Pádraig Pearse. The towering icon is surrounded at its base by four plaques or “medallions”: one is in memory of the founder of Sinn Féin and first president of Dáil Éireann, Arthur Griffith; another features revolutionary leader Michael Collins; and a third displays a profile of Free State Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins. The fourth plaque carries the Irish-language inscription, “Do Chum Glóire Dé agus Onóra na hÉireann” (“For the Glory of God and the Honour of Ireland”).
Another reason the Cenotaph gets so little attention these days is that the three men who are honoured by it were all supporters of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which led to the Irish Civil War. Indeed, Dr Maurice Manning, the chair of the government’s advisory group on commemorations, has urged a debate on whether the Cenotaph should be rededicated to all the victims of the Civil War or if some other location should be chosen to commemorate both sides.
Few people nowadays are aware that the present-day monument has only been in place since 1950 and was preceded by another Cenotaph, unveiled on 13 August 1923. The original one was designed by Professor George Atkinson in the shape of a Celtic cross, 12.2 metres high and 2.4 metres wide, and was made of wood and covered with metal lathing and cement. There was a panel on each side of the cross, 13 metres high, featuring Albert Power’s images of Griffith and Collins. O’Higgins was added later, after his assassination which took place on 10 July 1927.
The unveiling took place close to the first anniversary of the deaths of Griffith and Collins on 13 August 1923 with the Irish Times reporting that there was a “great crowd” gathered outside the railings on Merrion Square. Relatives of Griffith and Collins were among the guests inside, on Leinster Lawn itself, along with many leading figures in Irish society at the time, including Kevin O’Higgins, who was of course unaware that his name and likeness would be added to the Cenotaph following his tragic demise in four years’ time. An oration was delivered by the head of the Free State government, William T. Cosgrave, who said: “The tragedy of the death of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins lies in the blindness of the living who do not see, or refuse to see, the stupendous fact of the liberation these two men brought to pass.”
Also among the dignitaries at the unveiling was Eoin O’Duffy, who was commissioner of the Civic Guard, as the Garda Siochána was generally known at the time. After leading Fianna Fáil to an overall majority in the 1933 general election, Eamon de Valera replaced him as head of police with Colonel Eamon “Ned” Broy. O’Duffy then became head of the Army Comrades Association, later changed to the National Guard, who adopted the fascist-style uniform of black berets and blue shirts as well as the accompanying straight-armed salute. The Blueshirts, as they were commonly known, planned a march which was initially forecast at 20,000-strong, on 13 August 1933, in honour of Griffith, Collins, and O’Higgins, which was to go past the Cenotaph on its way to Glasnevin Cemetery, where the three men are interred.
Just over 10 years earlier, in October 1922, Italy’s Blackshirts had staged their March on Rome, which had resulted in Benito Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister by King Victor Emmanuel III and the assumption of power by the fascists in a bloodless coup. In his biography of Fianna Fáil leader Eamon De Valera, Tim Pat Coogan writes that de Valera “elected to believe that O’Duffy’s march would be along Mussolini lines. It might not go past, but into Government Buildings. He decided that the time to find out was before, not after, O’Duffy got to Merrion Street. He banned the parade, and used it both as a pretext to ban the National Guard and, more importantly, as a cause to revive the military tribunal which he had so decried under the Cosgrave regime.”
When O’Duffy called off the parade, comparisons were inevitably drawn with Daniel O’Connell’s cancellation of the 1843 rally in Clontarf for repeal of the Act of Union after a proclamation banning the event was issued from Dublin Castle. In his biography, Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero, Fearghal McGarry writes of how the then Garda commissioner met Mussolini in person during a visit to Rome in 1928 and was greatly impressed: “He was attracted to Mussolini’s political agenda of fierce opposition and the dramatic nature of his movement.” Eamon de Valera also met Mussolini but Dev’s youngest son, Terry, tells us in a book entitled A Memoir, published in 2005, that his father had taken an instant dislike to the Italian dictator, “whom he told me he found to be an arrogant, bumptious little man who strutted around the room”.
With regard to what became known as “Blueshirt Sunday”, Terry de Valera recalls how he discussed the events of that day in much later years with his father, who told him that “trusted sources” supplied intelligence information “that a coup d’état was expected following a march on Government Buildings”. I met Terry de Valera in 1990 at a function in the National Museum and he pointed out a gentleman among the attendees, whom he described as “the last of the Broy Harriers”. This was a special force recruited into An Garda Síochána immediately prior to the planned march past Leinster Lawn.
In his biography of Dev, David McCullagh tells us that they “were recruited, trained and armed in less than three days” and then assigned to guard Leinster House and members of the Fianna Fáil government. The new recruits were IRA veterans who had now clearly taken the Fianna Fáil side in the republican movement. Terry de Valera comments that “No other part of the Gardaí could be so relied upon.” The “Broy Harriers” nickname was a play on the title of the Bray Harriers hunting club and the name of Garda Commissioner Broy.
Terry de Valera writes that “When it became clear that a coup d’état was imminent the Broy Harriers were mobilised and a heavy guard was placed on Government Buildings, other vital installations and likewise on Bellevue [the de Valera family home on Blackrock’s Cross Avenue]. A theoretical line was drawn up Merrion Street and orders were given to open fire if the Blue Shirts [sic] should pass this line. At the last moment the Blue Shirts called off their march and mercifully the crisis passed. Some modern revisionists have tried to deny or at least soften down these events. This so upset me in view of what I had known, that I checked the facts again with my father when he was President and he confirmed what I had stated.” On 8 September 1933, the Blueshirts merged with two other organisations to form Fine Gael, with O’Duffy as leader, but he resigned from the party a year later.
In his book De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow, Tim Pat Coogan writes that “the IRA Army Council had drawn up plans for a major ambush of the marchers when they got to the high buildings on either side of Dublin’s Westmoreland Street”. On 16 August 1939, the Irish Times reported that the Fianna Fáil government had decided to take down the Cenotaph, which was “in imminent danger of collapse”. A new memorial would be erected on the same site ”when a suitable design has been prepared and approved”.
Nine years later, in 1948, the inter-party coalition headed by John A. Costello of Fine Gael, approved the replacement, designed by Raymond McGrath. John Henry Foley’s statue of Prince Albert was moved to a different part of Leinster Lawn to allow for extra space; a statue of his wife, Queen Victoria, on the Kildare Street side of Leinster House was removed entirely and sent to Australia.
In her book, Commemorating the Irish Civil War, Anne Dolan points out that, in July 1952, Liam Cosgrave of Fine Gael (the party was back in opposition at this stage) asked when the new structure was likely to be completed and was told by Fianna Fáil Finance Minister Seán MacEntee that work had been finished in October 1950. The new Cenotaph was never formally unveiled, yet another reason why so few people are aware of its significance.
Deaglán de Bréadún’s books include Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin (Merrion Press, 2015) and The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (Collins Press, 2001 and 2008).