John Bruton objected to sending Queen Victoria statue to Sydney

Ex-finance minister said figure outside Leinster House was ‘part of our heritage’ in 1986

The statue of Queen Victoria outside the Queen Victoria building in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The statue of Queen Victoria outside the Queen Victoria building in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

A government decision to transport a massive statue of Queen Victoria to Australia 30 years ago was vigorously opposed by the then minister for finance John Bruton and director of the National Museum of Ireland John Teahan.

However, taoiseach Garret FitzGerald backed the plan and the statue was eventually sent to Sydney where it now stands outside the restored Queen Victoria Building.

The statue was part of a large monument designed by John Hughes and unveiled in 1908 by the Lord Lieutenant Lord Aberdeen at Leinster House.

The statue remained at Leinster House after the building became the home of the Dáil and Seanad in 1922, and it stayed there until 1948 despite occasional protests from some TDs who disliked the presence of Queen Victoria at the entrance to the Irish parliament.

In 1946, pressure for the removal of the statue built up on the basis that the space was needed for car parking. However, it was not until 1948 that the monument was taken down and sent to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham.

When restoration works began at Kilmainham it was moved again to Daingean in Co Offaly where it was kept in storage.

On loan

Then, in June 1986, the Irish Ambassador to Australia Joseph Small received a request from the office of the Lord Mayor of Sydney asking if it would be possible to send the statue to Australia on loan.

“For over two years we have been searching the world in vain for a life-size bronze statue of Queen Victoria. We have looked to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Yemen, etc all to no avail.

“Yesterday, just when we were giving up hope we received advice that there is stored in Dublin a fine bronze statue of Queen Victoria . . . it appears to be ideal to locate it in front of the Queen Victoria Building looking towards the town,” said a letter from the mayor’s office.

It added that if the statue was sent to Australia full recognition would be given to the Irish Government for such a generous gesture.

When the matter was brought to his attention, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was in favour of sending the statue to Australia.

He received a letter from Niall Glasser, director of promotion for the Sydney project, saying that either a loan or a gift of the statue would be accepted with pleasure and gratitude.

“There it would stand as a constant reminder of the permanent bond and friendship between our two countries,” he said, adding a guarantee that the statue would be maintained in a fit and proper manner.

However, the director of the National Museum of Ireland John Teahan wrote a memo objecting to the plan to send the statue to Australia.

‘Part of our heritage’

He argued that it was the work of an Irish artist and, historically, was part of the Irish scene.

“If we are deemed not to be mature enough to distinguish between the art-historical merits of Hughes’ Victoria, for instance, and a symbol of authority, which does not or at least should not apply, I advise that such a figure be retained and protected until we have grown up sufficiently to look that Queen, long dead, straight in the eye,” wrote Teahan.

Mr Bruton took the same view when the matter came before the cabinet on September 11th .

“The Minister for Finance strongly objects to the removal of the Queen Victoria statue from Ireland. The monument is representative of one of the many traditions of Irish history. It is part of our heritage in no less a way than Norman or Viking remains,” said a memo to cabinet from the department of finance.

“In the context of the Anglo Irish Agreement, in which reference has been made to the ‘two traditions’, the Minister for Finance sees great danger in publicly jettisoning a figure of the second tradition.

“The repercussions for the Government from such an act would far outweigh any minor adverse publicity that might arise if the Australian request were refused.”

Despite Bruton’s objections, the cabinet agreed to send the statue to Australia on a long-term loan.

Three smaller bronzes that were part of the monument remained in Ireland and are now on public display in Leinster House.