An Irishman's Diary


DUBLIN commemorates Charles Stewart Parnell, one of the great leaders of 19th-century Irish constitutional nationalism, in place-names such as Parnell Street and Parnell Square. He is also commemorated in the impressive monument that stands at the north end of O’Connell Street, a monument that was hoisted onto its pedestal 100 years ago today. It was one of the last initiatives in public sculpture in the city before Ireland became independent.

The late 1870s and particularly the 1880s saw Parnell at the height of his popularity and in early January 1882, Dublin City Council passed a resolution granting him the freedom of the city. In mid-August the same year, the monument to the other great leader of 19th-century Irish constitutional nationalism, Daniel O’Connell, was unveiled and Parnell arrived at the unveiling in the ceremonial carriage of the archbishop of Dublin.

With the O’Shea divorce scandal, Ireland’s “uncrowned king” was dethroned. Nevertheless, 200,000 people turned out for his funeral on October 11th, 1891. John Redmond was one of the minority of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) who remained loyal to Parnell after his fall and it was he who initiated the plan for a monument to his lost leader. Redmond may have been motivated by self-interest to some extent, in that he was hoping to reunite the divided IPP under his own leadership.

The scheme was to be funded by public subscription and was to be organised by a voluntary body called the Parnell Committee, formed in 1898. That year was the centenary of the rising of 1798 and was an auspicious occasion on which to launch the Parnell-monument plan because it was a year of commemorations both at home and among the Irish in the United States.

The lord mayor of Dublin, Daniel Tallon, chaired the Parnell Committee. Other members as well as Redmond were Count George Plunkett (father of Joseph, later to be executed for his role in the 1916 Rising) and Thomas Baker, manager of the Irish Independent newspaper.

The committee first proposed to locate the monument on the site of the statue of Thomas Moore, that is, on the traffic island on College Green opposite what used to be the Irish parliament before the Act of Union (now the Bank of Ireland). They offered to move Moore’s statue to another location at their own expense but Dublin City Council turned down this proposal and instructed instead that the Parnell monument be sited near the Rotunda Hospital.

This, of course, is where it stands today, complementing the O’Connell monument at the southern end of O’Connell Street.

The laying of the foundation stone took place on October 8th, 1899. Unfortunately, the ceremony was spoiled to a great extent by the noted absence of many of the political party that Parnell once led so effectively. Catholic Church representatives also absented themselves. More extreme nationalists did turn up but only to heckle at what they considered Redmond’s ineffectualness.

A large amount of money was needed to fund the project and Redmond decided to tour the United States, with members of the Parnell Committee, to appeal to the generosity of Irish-Americans. This proved an effective way of raising funds.

The most eminent sculptor of public monuments in the US, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, accepted the commission. He was born in Dublin but his family had emigrated to the US when he was just six months old. It took him some time to fulfil the commission, partly because he was working on other projects and also because he was suffering from cancer.

It was to be the last public monument he saw to completion. He was assisted by architects Henry Bacon and George Sheridan.

Saint-Gaudens made a scale replica of the proposed site for the monument. He also made a full-scale, wood and plaster replica of the monument itself, which he placed in a field beside his Cornish studio. But after a studio fire in 1904, only the head of the almost-completed monument survived. “More than all the rest of my losses in the fire, I regret, as an Irishman, the loss of the Parnell statue,” Saint-Gaudens is supposed to have said.

Originally, his plan was for an 8-ft bronze figure beside a bronze table, set against a 30-foot pyramid. But this form had already been used in the Wellington obelisk so Saint-Gaudens and Bacon opted for a triangular obelisk almost twice the height of that originally planned.

For the statue, the sculptor studied much about Parnell – photos, cartoons, accounts of how he bore himself and what he wore. In the final form, Parnell is depicted in an open frock coat, with his left hand resting on a table and his right extended as if making a point in a debate or oration. The obelisk is made from undecorated ashlar granite. The names of the 32 counties and four provinces are on bronze plaques around the base.

For the inscription, Redmond chose a passage from one of Parnell’s more extreme speeches. “No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country: ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’. We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood and we never shall.”

On the base of the statue is an inscription in Irish, written in old Gaelic script: “Go soirbhigidh Dia Éire dá clainn” (May God make Ireland flourish for her people).

Dublin City Council took over care of the monument from the Parnell Committee – at the latter’s request – in June 1913 and has maintained it ever since. It is one of Dublin’s most striking landmarks.