When a dictatorship or rotten regime ends, people take to the streets and someone clambers up on the plinth of the statue, wraps chains or ropes around the head of the former ruler, while pals attach the other end of the rope or chain to a tow-bar or a tank and pull the discredited guy down.
Lenin landed in the street that way as, less than a century earlier, his followers had overturned statues of Tsars. A sculpted Saddam Hussein fell in like fashion as, a little earlier and nearer home, did Queen Victoria and Lord Nelson.
Some deep satisfaction lives in beheading or totally downing the representation of a bad past. The footage and photographs of the destruction go around the world, the formerly awe-inspiring rendition of the former ruler made ridiculous by its severed neck or dented face. It becomes the symbol and summation of an era.
We didn’t – thank God – erect statues of lads like Sean Fitzpatrick and make triumphalist statements in the street to mark our overweening sense of entitlement and achievement during the Celtic Tiger years. But we did not fully resist the urge to put an erection at the heart of our capital city. I’d quite forgotten it until, on a car journey through central Dublin recently, my American passenger asked a simple question.
“What’s that for?” he inquired.
“What’s WHAT for?” I responded, looking around me and seeing only shops and traffic lights.
“That,” he said, pointing at the bottom of The Spire.
Because he’d just experienced me enthusiastically pointing out the bullet holes in the ample bosoms of the angels sitting around below Daniel O’Connell and giving a brief lecture on the Rising and the Civil War, he clearly expected some good stuff from me about this milky silvery circular thing, but I was stumped.
“Good question,” I said, wondering if I could distract him with Parnell if I threw in Kitty O’Shea. Because I had no clue how to answer his question. Since I’d forgotten the bloody Spire itself, it was going to be difficult to come up with a good function for it.
“Well,” I began, “a long while ago, in that position, was a thing called Nelson’s pillar, to commemorate Lord Nelson, the British admiral. People used to go up millions of steps inside it to reach the statue at the top and see the view from up there. It was a tourist attraction, before Harry Crosbie got his revolver. No, don’t worry about it, I’ll explain Harry Crosbie later, although it won’t be easy. Anyway, the IRA blew it up about 50 years ago. Someone kept his head in a garage for a while.”
“Harry Crosbie’s head?”
“No, the head off the statue of Lord Nelson.”
At which point, my American acknowledged that it might not have been politically apropos to reinstall Nelson, but sensibly asked why we hadn’t rebuilt the tourist attraction with someone else up top. To which I had no answer, other than that we weren’t much into statues of military leaders, because our military are kind of anonymous. What about Michael Collins, he asked. Or that guy with the Afro? (I think he meant Phil Lynott).
Of course a re-built pillar could do at least three things: celebrate whoever we put at the top, give visitors good exercise and earn a little money. Instead, we erected a yoke that has no function at all. You can’t get into it. You can’t get up it. You can’t see yourself in it. You can’t drop things off it, like that scientist did off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prove something about the pull of gravity. You can’t sit down with your back to it and unwrap your sanger, which at least was possible with the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. It’s too pointy to be a phallic symbol. It tells no story, sings no song, raises no heart. It’s just an expensive lump of shiny pointlessness. A literal waste of space.
The Spire (or The Spike, as most people call it when they call it anything, which they mostly don’t because it has become invisible) does, however, symbolise the worst of the boom years, when scale and display were what mattered. Those were the days when dopes who had bought a handbag that cost €3,000 felt vindicated and personally affirmed by its price. But at least you can put stuff in a handbag. You can’t put anything in the Spike and its cost never made anybody feel better about themselves or their city.
That’s not true of all the sculptures for which we found the money, back in the boom years. On any given day, you can see visitors and Dubliners standing among the Famine figures placed with unintentionally prescient irony opposite the Financial Services Centre. The ragged starving victims on their way to an emigrant ship, together with the explanatory plaques in the flat of the ground cause passersby to halt, to bend, to read. A kind of dialogue ensues, as happens with all good artworks.
In a quite different way, the very vulgarity of the Molly Malone statue near the bottom of Grafton attracts visitors who take each other’s photograph embracing her. It’s odd. Few women have been immortalised in bronze, but, with the single exception of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Mercy Order on Baggot Street, they’re all blowsy barmaids in chest measurement and dress. They’re like a collective ad for boob jobs.
IT HAS to be said that lots of civic monuments, worldwide, were criticised when first built. The Eiffel Tower in Paris provoked miles of disapproving newsprint in the beginning. But it went on, not just to become an attraction for visitors to the city, not just a backdrop to one James Bond movie, but to become the symbol of its host city. The Statue of Liberty fulfils the same function for New York. Souvenir versions of it sell in thousands every year. When it needed refurbishment, New Yorkers contributed millions of dollars for the purpose.
The Spike was criticised when Bertie’s lot put it up, but what’s significant is that it has never, in the ensuing years, captured the imagination of the citizens, of the wider Irish public or of visitors to this country. It appears in no photographs illustrating Dublin. That’s left to the lovely Ha’penny Bridge, which will be rivalled in no time by the spectacularly beautiful Harp Bridge in Docklands.
If we were to put up a truthful monument to the Celtic Tiger years, it would show a Euro sign melting, Dali-fashion, over the surrounding rocks. Like the downed Ozymandias, that might remind us of the folly of faith in the infinity of anything finite.
While not suggesting paramilitary action against The Spike in order to create space for such an instructive monument, that lump of nothing has to go. The Army should blow it up as a symbol of how we got sense. Even if that sense came a bit late and because it was forced on us.