Toppling statues won’t rid us of racism or hatred

If you remove the vestige and emblems of the past, do you erase the memory of what they represented too? asks Clodagh Finn

Vandals damaged a memorial to the Carrickmines fire victims. Picture: Councillor Peter O'Brien — Twitter

OVERHEARD in Dublin a few years ago: “That’s where

Nelson’s Pillar once stood,”

a father said to his young daughter, pointing to the Spire on O’Connell St in Dublin.

“Nelson Mandela?” she asked, and not entirely unreasonably.

The late South African president was in the news again this week
when his words, quoted by former US president Barack Obama, became the most-liked tweet ever, chalking up more than three million thumbs-up.

“No one is born hating another
person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion”, Obama wrote in a tweet citing a
line from Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom in response to the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left three dead and dozens wounded.

So-called white nationalists were
ostensibly protesting over plans to
remove a statue of the pro-slavery
Confederate general Robert E Lee
from the city’s Emancipation Park,
although, as many have pointed out, their repugnant neo-Nazi display was part of a wider backlash to the Obama era.

In passing, it’s worth asking why we refer to these thugs as ‘white nationalists’? Surely that is far too polite and too legitimatising a term for the torch-bearing, slogan-chanting, neo-Nazi hate merchants that president Donald Trump can’t seem to condemn.

As the fallout of the Charlottesville violence made headlines around
the world, four Confederate-era
monuments were taken down in the dead of night in Baltimore, 320km away.

The mayor, Catherine Pugh, said
the city had moved “quickly and quietly”, under cover of darkness, to take four monuments off their perches in an attempt to avoid further racial

We’ve seen the toppling of statues many, many times. Recall the scenes
of jubilation as citizens, high on new-found independence, rushed to knock the symbols of the regime that went
before them. We’ve witnessed the fall, quite literally, of a range of leaders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq to Lenin and Stalin following the break up of the former Soviet Union. Good riddance, you say? And so say all of us.

Yet in the case of the newly independent Estonia, not a decade had passed before some people wondered if they had done the right thing.

On a trip there in 1998, I was
particularly struck by one businessman who planned to open the first
Soviet Theme Park just seven years after independence.

The man behind the venture, Meelis Toom, said he felt compelled to recall the past after his 12-year-old asked him who Lenin was.

What he said then has particular
resonance now: “The Soviet years may have been times that we don’t want to remember, but I don’t think that we should be allowed to forget.”

It’s a question that should be asked again in the wake of the Charlottesville violence. If you remove the vestige and emblems of the past, do you erase the memory of what they represented too?

It’s also worth noting that today’s far right conflate two very different episodes in history — they carry Confederate flags and the symbols of Nazism.

During the Second World War,
the majority of southern whites were behind the Allies in their fight against Hitler. The Nazi flags weren’t adopted by the far-right until much later and let’s hope that a close retelling of history will expose their twisted thinking.

There is one small upside — those who argue that Confederate symbols (mistakenly, in my view) reflect American ‘heritage’ will find it
impossible to argue that the swastika is anything but a symbol of hatred.

Thankfully, there are still many powerful reminders of the abhorrent brutality carried out under that
supremacist symbol. Perhaps we might invite the Charlottesville mob
to visit the Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi extermination camp where 1.1 million men, women and children were

It is a persuasive example of how you can preserve a deeply offensive vestige of the past and use it to help people
reimagine a better future.

The best way to deal with the controversial monuments, emblems and
symbols of the past is not to erase them but to explain and contextualise them. We may still be condemned to repeat history, but at the very least, let us do so with open eyes.

Getting back to one of our own toppled statues, Nelson’s Pillar.
Admiral Horatio, the British naval commander famous for his victories against Napoleon, managed to stay on his perch longer than many monuments to British imperialism, which were carried off in the first flush of

Part of the reason for that was simply because it wasn’t easy to
remove a 4m behemoth made of Co Wicklow granite and black limestone.

In the years following independence, there was talk of keeping the column, but replacing Nelson with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Other more secular figures were suggested too; Jim
Larkin, Robert Emmet, even John F Kennedy, as historian Donal Fallon
reminds us in his thought-provoking and engaging book, The Pillar: The Life and After Life of the Nelson Pillar.

Fallon also reminds us that while “song and story” tell us the pillar was bombed by the IRA in March 1966, the bomb was, in fact, planted by a
left-wing faction not under its control.

The IRA distanced itself from the
action saying — and here’s the really interesting bit — that its movement was concerned not with the destruction of the symbols of imperialism,
but imperialism itself. A piece of plaster, however offensive, only has the power that we invest in it. That is why toppling the so-called symbols of hatred and intolerance will do little to change the ideologies they represent.

The reverse, unfortunately, is also true. A statue designed as a loving tribute to the memory of those who died in the Carrickmines fire tragedy in October 2015 was vandalised this week.

By whom and for what reason? It is not yet known, but let it be said you don’t have to go to Trump’s America to see thuggery and intolerance in action.

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