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Up Went Nelson

Post-independence Ireland saw a wave of monuments to the British empire being removed, but none more dramatically than Nelson's Pillar in Dublin – blown up on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

A Tribune reader who visits Dublin today is likely to walk the length of O’Connell Street, if only to see the bullet-peppered columns of the General Post Office, headquarters of the 1916 Easter Rising. Beside the GPO is the imposing Spire of Dublin, erected in 2003 to the princely sum of €4 million. The work was designed by Ian Ritchie Architects, a leading British design practice, who sought an “elegant and dynamic simplicity bridging art and technology.”

The work of a British design team using imported materials, there is a certain irony in the fact it replaced a monument designed by an Irish architect and made of Wicklow granite, Nelson’s Pillar. Yet despite its homegrown credentials, many regarded the Pillar as an affront, and a symbol of British colonialism in the centre of the city. Above it stood Horatio Nelson, dominating a city he had never set foot in.

Monuments politicise public space – in many ways, like the naming of streets, that is their core function. A visitor to the Dublin of the early eighteenth century would have observed King William III on College Green, a monument unveiled only eleven years after the Battle of Boyne, and when William was still the reigning monarch. The Georgian city was defined by such monuments. Nothing could match the later Nelson’s Pillar in scale however.

Predating the Trafalgar Square monument, Nelson’s Pillar was unveiled in 1809, a mere six years after Robert Emmet’s failed insurrection in the capital, and with the memory of the United Irish rebellion of 1798 – an Irish response to the democratic age and the ideals of the French Revolution – still lingering.

Rising to a height of 134 feet, the monument consisted of a Pillar around which were engraved the names of Nelson’s victories, with a statue of the Admiral on top. It was unveiled on the fourth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Admittedly, the Irish contribution to the battle had been enormous – records survive for around 12,000 of Nelson’s men (a body estimated at about 18,000), and of them, 3,573 were Irish-born. But the monument was not intended as a quiet and dignified commemoration of Irish lives lost at sea, but as a forceful statement that Dublin remained a city of Empire.

In post-independence Ireland, the landscape of Dublin was deeply contested. The Irish state was born of a compromise – the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 maintained some symbolic political ties to the British Empire, but many insisted on a reconfiguration of the capital. P.S O’Hegarty, formerly a member of the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians), maintained that ‘Nelson, Queen Victoria, and other British statues are ancient  monuments, trophies left behind by a civilisation which has lost the eight centuries’ battle. The hand that touches one of them is the hand of an ignoramus and a vandal.’

Others viewed the monuments differently – a succession of monuments fell by gelignite, including King William III, George II and Lord Gough, recalled as the infamous ‘Hammer of the Sikhs’ who displayed extreme barbarity in colonial India. A Dublin wit penned Gough’s Immortal Statue in 1957 after a later blast. In the song, Admiral Nelson reflects on his own mortality, asking the nearby statue of Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell about his own chances:

When Nelson heard about it, he shouted to Parnell.
‘How long will I be left here, now Charlie can you tell?
For I don’t feel safe upon my seat,
for I may retreat down to the street,
like Gough’s immortal statue, up near the Magazine.’

Among the more colourful proposals, Irish-American trade union leader Mike Quill – founder of the New York based Transport Workers’ Union, which was directly inspired by the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union of Jim Larkin and James Connolly – suggested that Jim Larkin could occupy the position on top of the Pillar. Other suggestions included John F. Kennedy, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Virgin Mary and Patrick H. Pearse, leader of the 1916 uprising.

Ultimately, all debate on the future of the Pillar was settled on March 8th 1966. A strong mythology has developed around the destruction of the imperial monument, with the explosion wrongly attributed to the Irish Republican Army. The IRA moved quickly to distance itself from the bombing, with a statement from the ‘Republican Movement’ claiming that their movement was concerned not with the destruction of the symbols of imperialism, but imperialism itself.

Instead, the device was planted by Liam Sutcliffe, a former member of the IRA who had left it, following in the footsteps of left-winger Joseph Christle, who took most of the organisation’s Dublin youthful membership with him into a new campaign of action, and what became Saor Éire, an organisation with a name borrowed from a radical organisation of the 1930s which sought to move Irish republican leftwards.

A keen cyclist, Christle organised the Rás Tailteann competition, a republican bicycle racing fixture once dedicated to the memory of James Connolly and Vladimir Lenin. Sutcliffe insisted that the idea to remove Nelson had come to the minds of this grouping of left-republicans, who felt the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Rising provided the imperative for Nelson’s removal.

The destruction of Nelson’s Pillar triggered euphoric scenes in Dublin – The Dubliners Nelson’s Farewell was propelled to the top of the charts, a song which jokingly positioned Nelson’s journey into the clouds in the context of the on-going space race:

Oh the Russians and the Yanks, with lunar probes they play
And I hear the French are trying hard to make up lost headway
But now the Irish join the race, we have an astronaut in space
Ireland, boys, is now a world power too
So let’s sing our celebration, it’s a service to the nation
So poor old Admiral Nelson, toora loo

Nelson remains in Trafalgar Square, of course. But even his presence there has remained a magnet for political intrigue. In 1934, Max Levitas, Dubliner and communist activist, was arrested for scrawling ‘ALL OUT AGAINST FASCISM’ on the monument at the time of street mobilisations against Oswald Mosley and his followers. A debate has opened in England – albeit motivated by different concerns to the Dublin monument – on the suitability of Nelson for public commemoration, largely owing to his own views sympathetic to slavery and colonialism.

At the heart of the story of Nelson’s Pillar is the relationship between the past and the present, the manner in which commemoration owes as much to contemporary concerns as it does to the past. It is true that there was artistic merit to Nelson’s Pillar, and to Thomas Kirk’s impressive statue of the Admiral which adorned it. Yet it remains undeniable that the monument was intended as a triumphalist gesture over the Irish capital, and it is highly unlikely that as the nineteenth century progressed, and nationalist Ireland increasingly found its voice, the monument could have been erected at a later date. Later monuments to figures like Daniel O’Connell, the revolutionary William Smith O’Brien and others all shifted the meaning of Ireland’s main thoroughfare.

So, what becomes of such monuments? Does Kirk’s Horatio Nelson belong in a Civic Museum? These are questions which many cities must grapple with. In erecting monuments to those from our own tradition, such as the trade unionist Jim Larkin in an Irish context, we ensure that our stories take their rightful place in the shared collective public space.