Whether the aesthetic of Dublin’s O’Connell St was improved by replacing Nelson’s 1809 Pillar with the 2003 Spire is an open question. The symbolism, however, is emphatic.
Nevertheless, the 1966 destruction of the monument celebrating a pin-up of British imperialism carried a layer of bittersweet irony.
Nelson had become a de facto tenant on a street named after one of the most effective opponents of Britannia’s visceral enthusiasm for conquest, The Liberator Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell and his myriad supporters might have purred at the juxtaposition; Nelson would have been galled.
That purifying is international, endless, and nearly always contested. It is also a reliable weather vane, pointing to how power shifts in societies.
In recent days, a sculpture of a Black Lives Matter protester, erected where a statue of slaver Edward Colston stood in Bristol was removed. That is one skirmish in an endless battle provoked by the Black Lives Matter protests. That movement will focus on American legacies, especially in the southern states.
The removal of statues honouring old Confederate warlords may be empowering and appropriate but it is not always consensual and may exacerbate rather than resolve differences.
Aligning truth and history is almost always fractious, especially where emotion is as powerful a force as truth. The opposite is also true.
Celebrating universally admired figures and their shared values is one way of strengthening social unity. The naming of one of Cork City’s newest bridges in honour of humanitarian Mary Elmes is a recent example. It seems particularly important, in a society that does not have a formal honours system, to use those opportunities wisely.
So, who might we consider worthy of such an honour? Whose beliefs and work transformed this society in positive, enriching ways? Who made us face Ireland’s realities rather than indulge our wishful thinking?
One of the biggest transformations in this country over the last decades has been how institutionalised Catholicism has waned.
Mary Raftery, who died in 2012, lit that particular fuse with her brave, once-in-a-lifetime exposés of the everyday cruelties in care settings. Her States Of Fear and Cardinal Secrets were transformative.
Christine Buckley, who died two years after Raftery, continued that work on a different plane. Both deserve to be remembered formally. Of course, neither would have been equipped for the challenges they accepted without the introduction decades earlier of free education.
The man responsible for that 1966 game-changer, Education Minister Donogh O’Malley, deserves to be remembered as he changed our country far more than most of his peers.
John Hume, who rejected the Armalite but championed the ballot box, too. Seamus Heaney is so fondly remembered that another honour may seem superfluous but he deserves a prominent one in a public place.
In sport, maybe Brian Cody. This is a how-long-is-a-piece of string question, but maybe one we should give more attention to, as these monuments reflect our hopes and values and celebrate individuals who champion and mirror them.
We should not be shy or modest about honouring them.