IRELAND’S commemoration of its First World War dead has always been complicated. Men from all over the country joined the British Army, and tens of thousands of them never came back.
The ones that did returned to a changed country — one fighting to leave the very union whose army they had been fighting for.
Such political turmoil explains the many delays and hiccups along the road to what is the national site of commemoration, the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge in Dublin. It may also explain the reticence of Harry Clarke, who illustrated Ireland’s Memorial Records, a multi-volume record of the names of the fallen that was eventually published in 1923, and of which a copy is on display at Islandbridge. Tellingly, the book room at Islandbridge is only opened at a visitor’s request.
Clarke left just one written reference to the illustrations, despite working on them for four years on and off. Now, they are the subject of a book by Marguerite Helmers, a US academic.
“The whole thing was taboo,” she says, “and this is an angle that interested me from the beginning. A number of people say that Harry Clarke wasn’t political at all and that he really lived for art, but if you look at where he lived from 1919 to 1922, when he finished the illustrations, he was in the midst of very radical nationalist places in Dublin.
“The Keating Branch of the Gaelic League was a couple of doors away from the studio. Michael Collins was a member of that branch, as was Cathal Brugha. There’s really no records of him talking about these pictures, except that he put in his diary that he’d met with the committee in 1919 and nothing really after that. I think it was taboo and he didn’t want to talk about it that much.”
Yet the illustrations speak to a thoughtful engagement in the project from Clarke, drawing on medieval illuminated manuscripts, motifs of the Celtic Revival and religious iconography, battle scenes and so on.
He also incorporates images drawn from popular culture, says Helmers. “On one of the page, he starts to make the design look like a thicket or a vine that ensnares the soldiers. So I think he’s working through different interpretations of how you could memorialise the war, different interpretations of how people might view the books. He’s allowing different spaces for people to come into the books and find images that mean something to them.
“One of the things that’s so interesting about Ireland’s Memorial Records is that Harry Clarke looked at images that would be in newspapers and drew on them. He put in very documentary imagery of guns, planes and transport ships.”
That this work of Clarke is relatively unsung speaks to this country’s ambivalent attitude to its war dead. As attitudes change, it is timely that focus be put on Clarke the war artist, Helmers says.
“I think this work has been in his ‘other’ category, perhaps an ephemera category. He did a lot of commercial work, too, so I think these illustrations have been seen as like one of his commercial works.
“But I think given the complexity of the illustrations, the size and care that went into putting the volumes together, it would be good to bring it back into the standard oeuvre of Harry Clarke,” she says.
“I do think it is of merit as art and I think the production of the books is worth considering by people, too. The books were printed on hand-made Irish paper, very careful work went into the spacing and design of the text and layout; the books were bound really beautifully, some with Irish linen bindings.They really were produced as Irish fine-art books. I think that is a very important part of the story as well.”