We’re seeing more and more reports of protesters toppling questionable statues lately. In Ireland, we were disposing of offensive monuments long before it was cool. It’s part of our heritage that doesn’t get much attention. Nelson’s Pillar once stood in O’Connell Street, where it towered over the capital city’s widest street from 1808 to 1966 where the Spire now stands. Built from Wicklow granite and black limestone, the pillar rose 134 feet tall. It was taller than a ten story building and nearly as tall as Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, which is 160 feet tall, and Rome’s Colosseum, which is 157 feet tall.
Horatio Nelson was a hero of the British Empire, and they have plenty of statues of him in the UK. He defeated Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and his biggest success was also his last. His troops repelled Napoleon again at the Cape Trafalgar in 1805, but he was shot by the French and died.
On the first anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Irish republicans flew their flag from the pillar. From the 1930s through the 1950s, various IRA leaders planned attacks on Nelson’s Pillar, but without achieving their desired result. The public debated how to replace Nelson with an Irish revolutionary leader, John F. Kennedy or even the Virgin Mary, and the city of Dublin contemplated relocating the gigantic offensive pillar.
Then one March night in 1966, a young IRA man paid a visit to Admiral Nelson. He came with an ample supply of gelignite and ammonal.
The explosion did not topple the pillar completely, but it did mortally wound it. The Irish army had to finish the job with a controlled explosion. Crowds gathered to watch and cheer as it came down.
While the demise of Nelson’s Pillar was widely celebrated, not surprisingly some critics piped up. They complained it was unnecessary destruction and said the monument boosted the city’s standing in the world. In hindsight, it is clear that Dublin is doing alright without Nelson’s Pillar – or any of the other British statues that were removed when Ireland became free. Today, Dublin boasts statues that reflect our own history, from our perspective, instead of celebrating a regime that oppressed this nation.
They Saved the Best for Last
Nelson’s Pillar was not the only statue honoring the British that met its demise. It was the largest and last of many. Someone blew up a statue of King George II on horseback in 1937. Statues of King George III and William of Orange met similar fates. Queen Victoria’s statue was hauled out of the parliament building and eventually sent all the way to Australia (like so many Irish people before and during her reign).
Dublin has built new statues that reflect the suffering and the strength of Irish people. Daniel O’Connell, Jim Larkin, Charles Stuart Parnell and others stand tall in the center of O’Connell Street, while James Joyce looks on from across the road. They remind locals and visitors of who and what Ireland celebrates. Statues in St. Stephen’s Green and along the quays honor the victims of the Great Hunger of the late 1840s, those who died and those who emigrated. Ireland is not short of statues. We know and honor our history – on our terms, with our heroes.