Enforcement action has been initiated by Dublin City Council against the Shelbourne Hotel for the removal of four statues from the front of the building.
The statues, depicting African and Egyptian women, two of which it had been suggested represented “slave girls” were removed by the hotel recently.
Hotel management said they took the decision to remove the statutes, which have been in place for 153 years, in light of world events and the Black Lives Matter movement calling attention to the legacy of slavery around the world.
However, the hotel is a protected structure, meaning changes such as the removal of the statues would require planning permission.
Since their removal, an art historian has said 19th-century documentation proves conclusively that the statues do not depict slave girls. Kyle Leyden, who is a lecturer in the history of art and architecture at the University of London, says the original catalogue from which the four statues were ordered clearly label them not as slaves, but Egyptian and African women.
The council has now issued the hotel with a warning letter stating that it believes “unauthorised development” may have been undertaken by the hotel. The hotel has four weeks to respond to the council, or replace the statues. If the statues are not replaced and the council is not satisfied with the hotel’s response, the council may then issue a legal notice ordering their replacement.
Senator Michael McDowell, who lodged a formal complaint with the council in relation to the hotel’s actions, said he would advise the hotel to reinstate the statues immediately. Otherwise the legal consequences could be serious, he said.
“The High Court and the Circuit Court have jurisdiction to deal with the matter. If the Shelbourne Four are not freed and reinstated, it may be necessary to sue the hotel management civilly in parallel with any criminal process,” he said.
“They may find it easier just to put them back up. As I understand that is easy to do.”
Separately Fine Gael councillor Paddy McCartan has submitted a motion ahead of the new council term in September calling for the reinstatement of the statues, if the matter has not been resolved by next month.
“These statues at the front of the hotel are an integral part of Dublin’s cityscape and were removed unilaterally and without planning permission from a protected structure.”
Of greater concern than the statues themselves, Mr McCartan said was the precedent that could be set if they were not reinstated, of allowing owners of protected structures to make changes to buildings without permission. “As this was an unlawful act it sets a dangerous precedent,” he said.
A 1951 book about the hotel by novelist Elizabeth Bowen describes the statues as depicting two princesses and two "slave-girls".
However, historians have maintained this was a misapprehension. Mr Leyden told The Irish Times: “They are not shackled. All four wear golden anklets as symbols of their aristocratic rank. They are all aristocratic women of Egypt and Africa,” he said.
The hotel has not responded to requests for comment this week.