Fifty years ago, an IRA bomb belatedly decapitated one of the most iconic monuments to British rule in Ireland, writes Billy O’Riordan.
THE song, ‘Up Went Nelson’, by The Go Lucky Four, remained top of the Irish charts for eight weeks in 1966. It celebrated the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar, on March 8 of that year. That was 50 years ago this week.
Lord Horatio Nelson had watched over the citizens of Dublin for 157 years, until an unauthorised IRA operation, named ‘Operation Humpty Dumpty’, had dispatched Nelson from atop his 121ft Doric column, down onto the capital’s main street.
Nelson first appeared on the Dublin skyline in 1809 and became one of the city’s architectural adornments. The statue was designed by Cork sculptor, Thomas Kirk, and was unveiled to the public on October 21 (Trafalgar Day), 1809. A committee of trustees, including Arthur Guinness, had financed its construction.
The pillar had 168 steps, with startling views from the top. Many Dubliners treated ‘Nelson’ with indifference, whilst others appreciated the one-eyed, one-armed wonder standing aloft on O’Connell Street.
Oliver Saint John Gogarty described it as “the grandest thing we have in Dublin”, but history caught up with Nelson.
After the 1916 Rising, O’Connell street was in tatters, but, much to people’s chagrin, Nelson, by luck or design, got off lightly. He only suffered an injury to his face. The War of Independence also passed him by.
But attempts were made to even things up. In 1955, a group of UCD students barricaded themselves inside the pillar and attempted to burn Nelson from inside, using blow torches. Gardai arrived, but a crowd had formed to protect the students. The students got a telling-off, while the crowd sang ‘Kevin Barry’ in support.
Nelson had become a landmark, a meeting place, a terminus for taxis and buses. Yet, this face of British imperialism, overlooking the nation’s capital, was an affront to nationalists.
The pillar was owned by trustees, and Dublin Corporation had pleaded with them to move it, to improve traffic management. Their petitions fells on deaf ears, because of legalities and costs, while many Dubliners opposed any plans to move Nelson to a less central part of the city.
Nelson had some powerful supporters, among them, Desmond Ryan, once secretary to Pádraig Pearse, who said: “Nelson had acquired squatter’s rights to his place in O’Connell street.”
As time passed, proposals were put forward in the hope of finding an acceptable compromise to the ‘pillar dilemna’. What, or who, could adorn the doric plinth, instead of Lord Nelson?
Among the proposals were: a winged figure, an eternal flame, Micheal Collins, Wolfe Tone, St Patrick, John F Kennedy, and, in a true sign of the times, the Virgin Mary.
On March 8, 1966, the debate came to an abrupt end. An IRA bomb went off on O’Connell St, destroying the upper half of the pillar. It was no coincidence that the date marked 50 years since the Easter Rising. The army dispatched what remained of the pillar.
David Norris would later comment: “It provoked the only recorded instance of humour in that lugubrious figure, the late President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, who is said to have phoned the Irish Press, to suggest a headline, ‘British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air.’
But, true to form, Nelson did not go silently into the night. Shortly afterwards, a theft took place from a Dublin Corporation storage shed. Nelson’s head had vanished. Students from the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), short of cash, had stolen it and leased it to an antiques dealer.
The head would later appear on stage with the folk band, the Dubliners, at the Olympia, and, bizarrely, in a ladies’ stocking commercial. Eventually, through a circuitous route, Nelson’s head returned to its rightful owner.
Anna Livia stole Nelson’s spot in O’Connell street for a time; but Anna was replaced by the now symbol of O’Connell Street, the Spire. Nelson’s head now takes pride of place in the Gilbert Library, on Pearse St, Dublin.
Many Irish people will remember walking the 168 steps of the pillar to the viewing platform. Courting couples met at the pillar, buses and trams alighted there, revolution and war happened under it. Nelson’s Pillar lives on in the folk memory of Dubliners, through stories, poems and songs.
As we remember the anniversary of Nelson’s destruction, we leave the last words to The Go Lucky Four and their chart-topping lyrics of 1966: ‘All along O’Connell Street, the stones and rubble flew, As up went Nelson and the pillar, too.’
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