From pillar to post colonialism

An Irishman’s Diary about the Irish tradition of iconoclasm

‘Dennis Kennedy laments the republican destruction of the statue, and half the supporting column, in 1966. His regret is part nostalgia. He’s one of a generation who climbed it – first, in his case, as a schoolboy in 1946 – and for whom it was Dublin’s centre.’  Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

‘Dennis Kennedy laments the republican destruction of the statue, and half the supporting column, in 1966. His regret is part nostalgia. He’s one of a generation who climbed it – first, in his case, as a schoolboy in 1946 – and for whom it was Dublin’s centre.’ Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

Wed, Aug 7, 2013, 01:01

Even as I was writing about the decapitation of Pádraic Ó Conaire’s monument (Irishman’s Diary, August 3rd) last week, a book landed on my desk concerning another victim of Ireland’s penchant for iconoclasm: Nelson’s Pillar.

I’ll come back to that in a moment. But first, two amusing details about Ó Conaire that readers have since shared. One concerns the Galway monument which, as we noted, was unveiled in 1935 by Éamon de Valera.

This was apparently considered a hijacking of their relative by members of the Ó Conaire (or Conroy) family, who were not among Dev’s admirers. So the night before the unveiling, two nephews of the writer cycled from Connemara into Eyre Square and fitted their uncle with a fetching blue shirt of the kind then all the rage among the anti-Dev faction.

The other story concerns the flesh-and-blood writer and goes back to his days as a civil servant in London: a period when he became involved with the Irish republican movement and drilled with like-minded expats including Michael Collins.

As an act of subversion, however, his military manoeuvres in London take second place to a coup he reportedly pulled off against British bureaucracy.

Being a public servant of the king, Patrick Conroy (as his employers knew him) was entitled to extra emoluments if he acquired an advanced qualification in a foreign language. Naturally he chose Irish. So the examiners advertised for someone who could set and mark a suitable paper. And the vacancy was duly filled by a scholar called Pádraig Ó Conaire, whose questions Patrick Conroy must have found very amenable.

Anyway, getting back to Nelson, it’s an irony that he and Ó Conaire should both have been victims of Ireland’s intermittent war on statues (yes, readers, I know Ó Conaire’s isn’t strictly-speaking a statue, because it’s seated). But at least the Galway man’s sculpture could be re-capitated, which is more than can be said for Nelson’s.

In Dublin’s Fallen Hero: The Long Life and Sudden Death of Nelson’s Pillar, Dennis Kennedy laments the republican destruction of the statue, and half the supporting column, in 1966. His regret is part nostalgia. He’s one of a generation who climbed it – first, in his case, as a schoolboy in 1946 – and for whom it was Dublin’s centre.

But retelling its long and controversial history, he also makes a retrospective case for its retention on aesthetic and other grounds. It’s academic now, of course. Even so, in this decade of centenaries, the half-centenary of the pillar’s demise is worth some reflection.

The problem with Nelson was that, despite the book’s title, he was never Dublin’s hero. He was, as Kennedy himself writes, the hero of an elite who ran the city at that time, without reference, never mind deference, to the majority population.

Although in most cases born in Ireland, they considered themselves English. And so it seemed seem logical to them, at least, that they should commemorate Nelson in the centre of a city he probably never visited and in which he had no evident interest.

In fact, they easily beat the rest of the United Kingdom in the race to honour him. Nelson was hardly cold in his grave before Dublin began planning a monument. It would be more than 30 years before London did the same.

But then, as Oliver St John Gogarty, one of the defence witnesses called by Kennedy, suggested, it was a monument to themselves as well as Nelson.

Gogarty admired their self-confidence and the 18th-century Dublin they built, He thought, on the whole, that independent Ireland might learn from them rather than tear their monuments down. Yeats, despite disliking the Pillar as a piece architecture, had a similar view.

Before the explosion, successive governments had considered formal decommissioning of the statue, and its replacement on the column by somebody more sympathetic to the new state. In this context, the parliament in Stormont discussed giving it a home.

Another, grittier, proposal from the North was that, if extradited, the statue should be ground down and used as “road metal” in counties Fermanagh and Tyrone. No doubt this would have added to the determination of local Orangemen to walk the queen’s highway.

But with the benefit of hindsight, I suggest that the most enlightened compromise might have been to reduce Nelson to a time-share scheme on the pillar.

Rather than choose one replacement – which would have been problematic – we could now have a roster of sculptures and artworks atop the column: just like that plinth on Trafalgar Square. Even the man himself might have been periodically restored to his perch. In a gesture of political ecumenism, we could have flown him on designated days.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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