The Building of the Gardens
Preliminary work began on the ground in late 1931 (the 28th of December), employing a mixture of ex-soldiers from both the British Army and the Irish National Army (164 men at first, many of whom had served in both armies). The reason for this was that the funds being contributed by the Government to the scheme were being drawn from the budget allocated to unemployment relief works. A large proportion of the men had been recommended to the work by the employment officer of the British Legion. To ensure the maximum amount of labour available, the men worked with manual tools only. An exception was made for a steamroller and two concrete mixers. The park section of the Gardens was laid out first, and this was completed in late 1933. The number of men working on the site doubled in this time, to around 300. OPW Principal Architect T.J. Byrne supervised the labour on the site; he was later lauded for visiting the site every single Saturday for the whole five years of its main construction period.
It is not easy now to visualize what the place looked like when it was first entered upon. Nature has healed most of the scars made by the workers, and the vast levelling operations that were carried out are no longer apparent. Round the Horseshoe Road, however, and along the road to Chapelizod the slopes of the cuttings are still brown and naked, but on the whole the landscape looks natural. Forgotten are the great gravel pits that were filled; the old cart tracks now replaced by metalled roads; the steep slopes and deep hollows that can no longer be seen. Worthy of note are the entrances at Islandbridge, at St John’s Road, and at Chapelizod. A handsome lodge stands guard over the latter. Worthy of note, too, is the bridge over the Great Southern Railway, designed to carry elaborate colonnades in chiselled granite, but unfortunately uncompleted for lack of funds.
At first we had little in the way of drawings to guide us by midsummer 1934 they began to come in. Then it was I first set out in search for granite. Mounted on my trusty motor bike, I explored the quarries of Counties Dublin and Wicklow. I mention this because at that time there was a severe slump in the building trades and many of the quarries stood half idle. Soon my errand became known and many a smile and a good day greeted me as I passed through the villages. I was treated as the bringer of good tidings. And I was surely that during the two years that followed my visits. Order for granite amounting to upwards of £25,000 were distributed among the quarries, and the stone cutters hammer once again rang merrily, without ceasing among the hills of Ballynockan and Barnaculla.
The building of the central lawn, and attached features, did not begin until the 12th December 1933, when negotiations between the Committee and the Government finally concluded. Huge amounts of earth were moved as the ground was levelled. The “unfavourable nature of the soil” was to cost the Committee an extra £6,000 in unforeseen expenses. The built structures were given foundations as deep as twelve feet. Stone was worked in the quarries at Ballyknockan (Wicklow) and Barnaculla (Dublin), and brought to Islandbridge. The stone carvers were provided with detailed drawings and templates by Capt. Campbell, (who was also the on-site engineer), and his assistant, Mr T.J. McCarthy. Eight stonemasons, seven of which were over sixty-five, worked on the walls.
Just as the park had been constructed without the use of machinery, so too was the central lawn, even though the stones which made up the built features each weighed over a ton. Instead, hand winches, telegraph poles, steel rope, and pulley-blocks were employed. There was only one workplace accident recorded, and the man involved returned to work after three months. Water for the gardens was arranged by the establishment of a hydraulic system which pumped water from the Liffey to the high point of the gardens. Gravity then fed water to the fountains and ponds.
Andrew Jameson formed a subcommittee to advise on the planting of the park and gardens. The members were Sir Frederick Moore (retired Curator of the Botanic Gardens), Mr A.F. Pearson (Assistant Superintendent of the Phoenix Park), Mr Besant (Superintendent of the Botanic Gardens), and Mr Robert Anderson (retired Superintendent of the Phoenix Park). The trees and shrubs they selected were in line with those preferred by Lutyens. Varieties included Yew hedges, Cherry trees, Cornish elm, Poplar, Birch, Acers, and Maples. 4,000 rose bushes were ordered by Pearson. These included 300 Shot Silk, 300 Madame Butterfly, hundreds of General McArthur, as well as Etoile de Holland, Duchess of Atholl, Betty Prichard, Norman Lambert, Golden Gleam, and Golden Glory. Pearson also supervised all the planting, using his own forestry team from the Phoenix Park to carry out the work.
Even though sympathy for remembrances of the First World War was growing less in Ireland, especially after the change of government and the election of de Valera in 1932, work continued on the Irish National War Memorial Gardens. Lutyens inspected the work on a visit during 1935, and was pleased with what had been accomplished.