Franco’s removal asksus pressing questions

Franco’s removal asksus pressing questions
General Franco

In New Orleans, there is a blank slab of concrete where a statue of American civil war general Robert E Lee stood for 133 years.

It was removed to an undisclosed location two years ago.

That same year, 500 miles to the north in Memphis, a monument honouring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate war hero and Ku Klux Klan founder, was removed for the same reason.

New Orleans and Memphis, and many more communities south of America’s Mason-Dixon line, looked their past in the eye and could no longer celebrate the values Lee, Bedford, or the Confederacy represented. Nevertheless, those removals were not, and are not, without controversy.

The 700 Irishmen, ardent Catholics to a man and led by Eoin O’Duffy, who joined the Brigada Irlandesa to fight with Franco’s Nationalists in Spain’s civil war would undoubtedly find this week’s exhumination of the dictator controversial.

Franco’s remains were removed from a basilica, which is crowned by a 150m cross and is visible for miles, in the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid.

He has lain in a spectacular, to-the-victor-the-spoils mausoleum for 44 years. The gigantic monument’s construction involved the forced labour of 20,000 Republican prisoners of war or political prisoners, leaving a legacy of rancour that resonates today.

Despite that triumphalism, despite that small-man’s vendetta, despite Spain’s 500,000 civil war dead, Franco’s remains now lie in an ordinary cemetery, in an ordinary family tomb without flags or honours of any kind. Sceptre and crown tumble down.

After Ireland achieved its independence, we did something similar, if not on such a grand scale. Many street names honouring British figures were changed and a certain kind of activist wants to change still more.

In 1935, a UCC statue of Queen Victoria was taken down and buried in the President’s Garden. It was retrieved in 1995 for the college’s 150th anniversary.

In the 1940s a statue of Victoria was removed from the grounds of Leinster House. This sweeping away continued and red post boxes were painted green.

It seems appropriate, as Brexit may hasten the redrawing of the map of these islands, to wonder if we are prepared to see some monuments honouring those we admire removed from public prominence to engender a parity of esteem in any new entity.

How might we respond if, say, it was suggested that the Bandon statue honouring members of the Third West Cork Brigade be removed? Can we even consider such a possibility?

What might a new anthem sound like, what ideals would it celebrate? Would it, like South Africa’s ‘Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika’, tip its cap to many traditions or would it be monochrome? Only one of those possibilities would contribute to a new and better Ireland. How should a new national flag, for we would surely need one, look? Would that symbol of state — the harp — be augmented with a garland of fifes?

Just as those who honoured the memory of Lee, Forrest, and Franco imagined that their monuments would be permanent, it is possible that some of the monuments we hardly even notice now might be so provocative in a new setting that they might be barriers to progress.

How might we react? With grace, intransigence, or something else altogether?

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