STANDING in a park close to the town centre, Ballymena’s war memorial is a familiar object to most people passing by.
War memorials are indeed very familiar objects. We accept them as parts of our cities, towns and villages. We are so used to seeing them that in some ways we fail to see them. They are brought into the public mind on particular dates of the year but otherwise, for most people, remain essentially invisible.
Yet even a brief glance at a war memorial can provide food for thought. The obelisk in Ballymena, for example, lists nearly 500 names – all men from the Ballymena Urban and Rural Districts who did not return from the Great War. Stopping to look at the names, carefully cut into the stone in row after row after row, can be a sobering and thought provoking experience.
Each of these men had his own story.
In a similar way, each Great War memorial also has its own story. Each is the product of local initiative and local fundraising efforts, and each memorial is unique. In this article I hope to explain the reasons why these memorials exist at home, many miles distant from the places where those they commemorate died. I hope to show, too, that although Great War memorials all mark more or less the same events, this does not mean that they are all the same.
Amongst County Antrim’s memorials, that found in Ballymena also has a particular claim to fame.
The public memorials to the dead of the Great War, in County Antrim and elsewhere, have their beginnings in the British Government’s decision in 1915 that the bodies of the dead should not be brought home. This was a clear change of policy from previous conflicts, when those families who could afford to were free to repatriate the bodies of their relatives.
The Government thus effectively took possession of the bodies, dictating where and how they would be buried, along with what kind of headstone or memorial would mark their graves. These were all questions which had previously been resolved by the families of the dead, and the Government’s decision removed any opportunity for families to have any say in the arrangements being made for their loved ones.
As early as 1917 in Ballymnena , plans were afoot to honour those who had been killed during the conflict.
The scheme evolved from an idea in the mind of local landowner Sir Robert Adair. Adair owned a plot of land to the south west of the town centre, not far from the railway station, and in the spring of 1917 he wrote to the town’s Urban District Council offering this plot as a ‘Memorial Park.’ The plot was, however, in poor condition: there was no fence or wall around it, while a water course had to be filled in and the foundation of a bridge under the road extended before anything further could be considered.
Moves were made to remedy these faults, although the project was held up by a series of disputes over the precise line the boundary fences should take. Railings and a set of gates were ordered from the well known firm of Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss in Wolverhampton, England, but what is described in the Council Minutes as ‘submarine trouble’ in the Irish Sea prevented the delivery of the finished product for some time.
The surviving Council minutes do not record the date of the gates arrival, but they were in place by June 1918.
A few weeks later, on 1 July, the park was the venue for a service to mark the second anniversary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
That morning, the Council’s Chairman laid a wreath at the gates in memory of the Ulster Division’s dead.
The Ballymena Observer described the events of that morning:
…on Monday a beautiful memorial wreath was displayed on the gate of the Memorial Park, on the Galgorm Road, bearing the words – Thus have we kept in remembrance the part our men played on the First July, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, in the fight for freedom. “Their memory will never fade.”
Even before the war had come to a close, then, Ballymena’s Memorial Park was a place for commemorating the war dead. This appears to make it the first public memorial in the area which became Northern Ireland, and possibly also the first public memorial in Ireland. The first post war memorial appears to have been the monument in Stranocum, which was in place by April 1920, although it does not seem to have been formally unveiled.
Ballymena’s memorial was supplemented in November 1924 when an obelisk was dedicated in the centre of the park by Sir Oliver Nugent, former commanding officer of the Ulster Division. Like most memorials, the unveiling ceremony in Ballymena was a great public event, attended by what the Observer described as ‘an immense gathering of the inhabitants of the town and district.’
Today the park itself is well maintained, and in spring and summer the flower beds present a colourful face to passers-by. In November the trees may be bare but the park continues to provide place for commemorating several hundred men from Ballymena and district who gave their lives in two world wars.
In this article I have tried to explain why people felt that memorials on the home front were necessary, and also show the variety of public memorials in one Irish county. If public memorials are the most visible of memorials, they are far exceeded in number by the numerous other memorials to be found inside buildings, commemorating those associated with a particular school, church or other organisation.
All of these war memorials are part of our towns and villages. Their stories, and the stories of those whose deaths they mark, are part of our history. Perhaps we should all take time to look more closely when we pass them and see them for what they are: unique reminders of a traumatic time.