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Diarmaid Ferriter: Begin with pulling down statues, but then what?

A protest can do violence to historical context, messy, layered indentities and inheritances

‘Begob, Éamon, there’s great changes around here!” So said a departing Queen Victoria to Éamon de Valera in July 1948, shortly after his 16 unbroken years in office came to an end. As she spoke, Victoria’s statue was being removed from its position in the grounds of Leinster House and her imaginary comments were contained in a memorable cartoon in the satirical magazine Dublin Opinion.

Getting rid of the relics of British imperialism became quite an enterprise over the decades, most famously with the blowing up of British navy hero Horatio Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966; a measure of the popularity of that event was that the song “Up went Nelson” topped the charts for weeks.

But the peace process supposedly made us more measured. During her Irish visit in 2011, Queen Elizabeth was introduced to historian John A Murphy who showed her a statue of Queen Victoria in University College Cork; it had been erected in 1849 at what was then Queen’s College Cork. In 1935, it was removed and put in storage before being buried in the UCC president’s garden where it remained until its resurrection in 1995 to mark the college’s 150th anniversary. Murphy told Queen Elizabeth the college authorities had been “too civilised to break it up, even though they did not like Queen Victoria”.

Irish slave owners

One of the themes we have encountered in recent commemorations of the revolutionary period is the extent to which historical memory is partial and complex, and the current controversy over statues also reflects that. A burning anger born of current crises can force people to re-examine critically what has lain in their midst for centuries. To tear statues down as an act of protest can be deeply satisfying and cathartic, but does it also do violence to historical context and messy, layered identities and inheritances? And how far should it go?


Irish man James Blair collected the largest single slave compensation sum in the British empire (almost £84,000; the equivalent of over £8 million today)

In 2014, Limerick historian Liam Hogan highlighted that when the British government abolished slavery in most of its colonies in 1834, it paid slave owners more than £20 million in compensation for the loss of their “property”, including almost 100 people either born or raised in Ireland. Among them were Peter and William Digges La Touche, scions of the well-known banking family, who received a payment of nearly £7,000 for their 396 slaves on two plantations in Jamaica. Their relatives previously owned these plantations. Should the surviving handsome properties and estates in Ireland originally owned by the family be regarded as unacceptable monuments to slavery? Should portraits of the La Touche family members be slashed? Substantial numbers of the Irish elite were up to their necks in slave ownership, but are often remembered on home turf as patriotic, pious and charitable.

It was Irish man James Blair of Newry who collected the largest single slave compensation sum in the British empire (almost £84,000; the equivalent of over £8 million today) as in 1834 he owned more than 1,500 slaves. Should the stunning Penninghame Estate in Scotland he bought with his dirty money now be razed to the ground?

The narrative of Dick Dowling, the confederate army officer born just outside Tuam, and sent to the US during the famine, can also be tailored according to preference. As well as being a confederate hero – there are five monuments dedicated to him in Texas, including the first-ever civic monument erected in Houston – he is also remembered as a friend of the Fenians. In 1998, a memorial was unveiled to him in Tuam and calls are now being made for it to be removed. Dowling’s biographer Tim Collins noted that his trajectory, from famine emigrant to one who experienced racism in New Orleans before he went to Houston, revealed an uncomfortable reality: the right to “home rule” by southern US states gained sympathy among Irish residents there, some of whom had become slave-owning entrepreneurs.

IRA man Seán Russell

From Texas, Ann Ivins, a descendant of Dowling, sent a message to the Old Tuam Society in 1998 thanking them for their memorial plaque and promising to make Texas aware “that Tuam has recognised a native son so magnificently”. The Old Tuam Society exists not to champion any side in the American civil war, but to preserve and recognise Tuam’s past. Yet the Connacht Tribune in 1998 referred to Dowling as “the Milltown born hero of the American Civil War”. Is it time for the Dowling plaque to go, or is that an unthinking obliteration of the reality of the history of a Tuam native?

And what does Seán Russell, an iconic IRA figure, represent today, given his controversial meeting with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, supposedly to discuss assistance for the IRA, in 1940? A memorial to him unveiled in Fairview Park in 1951 has been repeatedly vandalised.

Show me your statue and, begob, I’ll show you the partial, black and white history you want.