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The Nelson Pillar, known locally as Nelson's Pillar or simply The Pillar, was a large granite pillar topped by a statue of Horatio Nelson in the middle of O'Connell Street (formerly Sackville Street) in Dublin. It was built in 1808–1809, and was among the first and grandest monuments erected in memory of Nelson in the then United Kingdom. It survived until March 1966, when it was destroyed by a bomb planted by Irish republicans, and today the oldest pillar erected to Nelson is Nelson's Column, Montreal, inspired by Irishman Samuel Gerrard.
The pillar was a Doric column that rose 121 feet (36.9 m) from the ground and was topped by a 13 feet (4.0 m) tall statue in Portland stone by Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk, RHA (1781–1845), giving it a total height of 134 feet (40.8 m) – some 35 feet (10.7 m) shorter than Nelson's Column in London. The diameter of the column was 13 feet (4.0 m) at the bottom and 10 feet (3.0 m) at the top.
All the outer and visible parts of the pillar were of granite from the quarry of Goldenhill, Manor Kilbride, County Wicklow. The interior was of black limestone. A contemporary account of the pillar described it in the following terms:
"In Sackville Street is a very noble monument to the memory of the immortal Nelson: it consists of a pedestal, column, and capital of the Tuscan order, the whole being surmounted by a well executed statue of the hero, leaning on the capstan of his ship."
News of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar reached Dublin on 8 November 1805 and was greeted with boisterous celebrations in the streets, alongside mourning for the death of the hero. Within a month the Lord Mayor of Dublin, James Vance, had called a meeting of 'nobility, clergy, bankers, merchants and citizens' to plan a monument in Nelson's memory, to be funded by public subscription. A committee of prominent citizen was formed, bankers, Members of Parliament and merchants, including one Arthur Guinness, to carry the project forward.
It invited 'the artists of the United Kingdom' to submit proposals for such a monument, and appealed for contributions from the public to pay for it. From the plans submitted, it selected the entry from a young London architect, William Wilkins—later to be responsible for such noted buildings as the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. His plan was for a tall Doric column, crowned not with a statue, but with a Roman galley.
The estimated cost of the project was initially £5000, and the committee had difficulty raising that amount, meaning work on it was delayed. In 1808, while still appealing for subscriptions, the committee thanked Wilkins for his proposal '... which furnished the groundwork of the beautiful column', but it went on to say that it did not have the means 'to execute his design precisely as he had given it', adding that 'Francis Johnston Esq. of Dublin, Architect had afforded the committee the necessary assistance to continue work on the project'.
Francis Johnston, (1760–1829) was already an established architect, having been appointed in 1805 as architect to Dublin's Board of Works and Civil Buildings. He is remembered chiefly for the General Post Office, built almost a decade after the Pillar (1815–1817), the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle, and for St George's Church in Hardwicke Place.
The pillar, as built to Johnston's slightly altered plans, differed in several ways from Wilkins' original design, most notably in the replacement of the galley on top with a statue of Nelson. The base was also rather different—rugged and four square, and larger than Wilkins' more elegant plinth, which had been slightly raked in sympathy with the tapering of the column.
Construction started with the laying of the foundation stone on 15 February 1808 by the Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Richmond. For the ceremony the Duke, dressed in a General's uniform and accompanied by the Duchess in deep mourning for the dead hero, drove in a state coach drawn by 'six of the most beautiful horses'. The procession from Dublin Castle to the site included Horse Yeomanry and Foot Yeomanry, sailors, officers of the Army and the Navy, subscribers,the committee, the Provost and Fellows of Trinity College, the Lord Mayor, the Common Council, sheriffs, aldermen and peers according to their degrees.
The pillar was completed "by August 1809" and the statue of Nelson was hoisted into place. This was the work of Thomas Kirk, a young Cork-born sculptor then at the beginning of a successful career. The statue added £630 to the cost of the pillar, which totalled almost £7,000. In the end the committee finished with a profit; about 230 donations, from titled individuals to groups of serving sailors and militia men, more than covered the cost.
It was opened to the public on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1809, the fourth anniversary of the battle. It offered the citizens of Dublin an unprecedented perspective on their city. For the payment of ten pence, they could climb the 168 steps of the inner stone staircase to the viewing platform. For the next 157 years its ascent was a must on every visitor's list.
The Dublin pillar was finished thirty four years before the statue of the admiral was hoisted into place on Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square in 1843, and it was 1867 before the London monument was finally completed with the putting in place of the four lions.
In Dublin the pillar became a tram terminus and a common meeting place for Dubliners. The original entrance to the pillar was underground, but G. P. Baxter designed a porch in 1894 which was added to allow direct access from the street. The original admission price to climb to the platform was later reduced to sixpence (children under 12 were half-price).
The memorial plaque reads:
When the pillar was built the population of Dublin was growing rapidly, and while there are no formal records, the probability is that it was approaching 200,000. Except from some private donations, the people who planned and built the pillar were exclusively members of a small and privileged minority – the Ascendancy, or the Anglo-Irish as they were called, distinguished by one characteristic: they were all Protestant, that is, they were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland. The remnants of the penal laws then still in force excluded Roman Catholics, Dissenting Protestants and all others from election to Parliament, and effectively from any say in the running of the city. Contemporary estimates suggest the Catholics in Dublin at that time outnumbered Protestants by roughly six to one.
Resentment against English rule had manifested itself in the United Irish Rebellion of 1798, and more recently in Robert Emmet's much smaller rising in Dublin in 1803. A French army had landed in 1798 in support of the United Irishmen, and Emmet had met Napoleon to seek help in 1803. Neither rebellion had the support its leaders expected, but the United Irishmen had met with initial success and had posed sufficient threat to British rule to lead to the Act of Union of 1800 as a means of stabilising the relationship between the two islands. Rebellion, and its brutal repression, plus the controversy over the Union, left Ireland in a state of considerable unrest at the time of Trafalgar, and not everyone among Dublin's large Catholic population shared the enthusiasm for a huge monument to Nelson. But there is little recorded political opposition to the project. One adverse comment in the Irish Magazine of September 1809 said the completion of the pillar excited no notice and was marked with indifference on the part of the Irish public, who had little interest in the triumphs of a Nelson or a Wellesley. Referring to the recent acquisition of the old Parliament House in College Green by the Bank of Ireland, the writer concluded:
‘We have changed our gentry for soldiers, and our independence has been wrested from us, not by the arms of France, but by the gold of England. The statue of Nelson records the glory of a mistress and the transformation of our senate into a discount office.’
The Irish Magazine was the publication of Watty Cox, a one-time supporter of the United Irishmen.
Many Dublin families of all classes and creeds, including the growing Catholic population, would have had strong personal reasons to rejoice at the victory of Trafalgar. It is estimated that one quarter to one third of the sailors who manned Nelson's fleet were from Ireland, including 400 from Dublin, and upper-class Irish Protestant families were well represented among the officer ranks at the battle.
While there was a general welcome for the pillar as an architectural adornment, some thought it too big and intrusive, and others complained that it was a serious obstacle to traffic, standing as it did where the main commercial route from the old heart of Dublin crossed Sackville Street on its way to the docks and the new Customs House. One of the most savage criticisms of it came in the 1818 History of Dublin by Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh:
“It is of most ponderous proportion which is not relieved by the least decoration. Its vastly unsightly pedestal is nothing better than a quarry of cut stone, and the clumsy shaft is divested of either base or what can properly be called a capital. Yet with all this baldness and deformity it might have had a good effect when viewed at a distance, or placed somewhere else; but it not only obtrudes its blemishes on every passenger, but actually spoils and blocks up our finest street, and literally darkens the other two streets opposite, which though spacious enough, look like lanes.”
But others liked the pillar; a decade later William Makepeace Thackeray admired "'broad and handsome Sackville Street with Nelson on his Pillar" A century later Maurice Craig, the architectural historian, thought the pillar both beautiful and well-placed. Complaints about the pillar as an obstacle to traffic persisted throughout the 19th century and became the basis for several attempts by, among others, Dublin Corporation, to have it dismantled and moved, either further down Sackville Street, or to one of the city's several Georgian squares. The problem was that the pillar, and the small patch of ground on which it stood, were owned by the Nelson Pillar Trust, and the Trust was charged with maintaining and preserving the monument. To move it would require an act of Parliament. This was almost achieved in 1882, when Westminster passed The Moore Street Market and North Dublin City Improvement Act, which authorised the dismantling of the pillar and its re-erection further along Sackville Street. This was to be done within a strict timetable laid down in the Act, which meant its re-erection had to begin within one month of its dismantling and had to be completed within two years—on pain of a hefty recurring fine. It never happened, partly because it would have cost too much, and it was not clear who should pay. So the authority to move the pillar lapsed, and it stayed where it was. In 1891 the pillar was again before the Westminster Parliament, this time in the form of a Private Bill promoted by prominent tradesmen in Sackville Street, and entitled simply the 'Nelson's Pillar (Dublin) Bill'. Once again traffic was cited as the reason for moving the pillar, and once again it was envisaged that it would be dismantled and re-erected. The bill passed its second reading, but before it could go to committee it was withdrawn, partly because several petitions against it had come from Dublin interests, partly because the trustees had declared themselves against it, and probably also because of the unresolved question of who was going to pay for the work.
With the surge in Irish nationalist fervour after the 1916 Rising and the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1921–22, it was inevitable that demands for the removal of Nelson would increase. Many thought it ironic, to say the least, that the great British hero should continue to hold pride of place in Ireland's capital city, and that he should do so in close proximity to the General Post Office, which had played a central role in the Rising. In 1923 the Dublin Citizens Association voted for its removal. In 1925 the Dublin Civic Survey said the site was quite unsuitable, and there should be legislation to permit its removal. The Dublin Metropolitan Police Association also wanted it moved.
When Dublin Corporation voted in favour of removing the pillar in 1931 it declared it 'a shame that the English hero, and adulterer, held pride of place in the capital city while there was still no statue to Tone, or Brian Boru or Patrick Sarsfield.' But the problem remained that no one had the power to remove the pillar, and no one was offering to pay the cost.
In 1955, the Corporation formally requested the permission of the trustees to remove the statue of Nelson from the pillar. (It wanted to replace Nelson with a statue of Wolfe Tone). The trustees replied that the terms of the trusteeship meant they could not do that. The city council declared that it was intolerable that such a public monument should remain in private hands, and demanded that there should be legislation to enable the council to remove or demolish it.
The question was raised at Government level in 1959, and a specific proposal was made in Cabinet in 1964 to replace the pillar with a statue of Patrick Pearse to mark the 50th anniversary of 1916. However, the normally decisive Taoiseach Sean Lemass did no more than agree to look at the question. But there were also influential voices raised in support of Nelson and his pillar. John A. Costello, who had been Taoiseach in 1948 when Ireland formally became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, said that on historical and artistic grounds the pillar should be left alone. Desmond Ryan, sometime secretary to the executed 1916 leader Patrick Pearse, argued that Nelson had acquired squatter's rights to his place in O'Connell Street, and praised his unique contribution to the symmetry of the street. Thomas Bodkin, a highly respected figure in Dublin and a former director of the National Gallery of Ireland, in a broadcast talk in 1955 described the pillar as a fluted Doric column of exquisite proportions...the focal point of our lovely city, and better than other monumental columns in Venice, Paris, Rome, Berlin or London.
Ireland's foremost poet, William Butler Yeats, who did not think much of the architectural merits of the pillar and would have been happy to see it moved, nevertheless wanted it preserved. In 1923 he declared that:
“It represents the feeling of Protestant Ireland for a man who helped break the power of Napoleon. The life and work of the people who erected it is a part of our tradition. I think we should accept the whole past of this nation, and not pick and choose.”
Liked or not, it had become a quintessential part of Dublin, and was to remain so until the early morning of 8 March 1966.
On 29 October 1955, a group of nine University College Dublin students locked themselves inside the pillar and tried to melt the statue with flame throwers. From the top they hung a poster of Kevin Barry—a Dublin Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer who was executed by the British during the Irish War of Independence. A crowd gathered below and began to sing the well-known Irish rebel song "Kevin Barry". Gardaí forced their way inside with sledgehammers. They took the students' names and addresses and brought them downstairs. As a Garda van arrived it was attacked by the sympathetic crowd. Rather than arrest the students, the Gardaí merely confiscated their equipment and told everyone to leave quietly. None was ever charged.
At 1.32am on 8 March 1966, a bomb destroyed the upper half of the pillar, throwing the statue of Nelson into the street. It had been planted by a group of former Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers, including Joe Christle. Christle, dismissed ten years earlier from the IRA for unauthorised actions, was a qualified barrister and saw himself as a socialist revolutionary. It is thought that the bombers acted when they did to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. No one was hurt by the explosion. The closest bystander was a 19-year-old taxi driver, Steve Maughan, whose taxi was blasted to pieces.
The official response to the dynamiting of the pillar came from the Government, through the Minister for Justice, Mr Brian Lenihan. He condemned 'the reckless action', which had caused wanton damage to property, disrupted traffic, and inconvenienced thousands of Dubliners. In an editorial the same day The Irish Times deemed the Minister's statement a "tepid" reply to what it described as a 'coup in the heart of the capital city' and a direct blow to the prestige of the state and the authority of the Government.
There was a general feeling that Dublin had lost an essential part of its identity. Owen Sheehy-Skeffington later told the Senate that 'the man who destroyed the pillar made Dublin look more like Birmingham and less like an ancient city on the River Liffey—the pillar gave Dublin an internationally known appearance'.
On the morning of Monday 14 March 1966, six days after the original damage, Irish Army engineers blew up the rest of the pillar after judging the vestigial structure to be too unsafe to restore. This planned demolition caused more destruction on O'Connell Street than the original blast, breaking many windows.
The rubble from the monument was taken to the East Wall dump and the lettering from the plinth moved to the gardens of Butler House, Kilkenny.
Ken Dolan and six other students from the National College of Art and Design stole the statue's head on St. Patrick's Day from a storage shed in Clanbrassil Street as a fund-raising prank to pay off a Student Union debt. They leased the head for £200 a month to an antiques dealer in London for his shop window. It also appeared in a women's stocking commercial, shot on Killiney beach, and on the stage of the Olympia Theatre with The Dubliners. The students finally gave the head to the Lady Nelson of the day about six months after taking it, and it was later housed in the Civic Museum in Dublin. It now resides in Gilbert Library in Pearse Street.
The Nelson's Pillar Act was passed in 1969, transferring responsibility for the site of the monument from the Nelson Pillar Trustees to Dublin Corporation. The site was simply paved over by the authorities until the Anna Livia monument was installed there for the 1988 Dublin Millennium celebrations. This was moved in 2001 to make way for the Spire of Dublin, erected in its place in 2003. In 2001, whilst the site was being excavated to prepare for the foundations of the spire, The Irish Times announced the discovery of a 200-year-old time capsule. This, in fact, turned out to be the plaque recording the laying of the first stone in 1808 which had apparently been buried when the subterranean entrance to the pillar had been replaced by one at street level in 1894. It is now in the National Museum.
On 23 April 2000, Liam Sutcliffe, from the suburb of Walkinstown, claimed on the RTÉ radio programme Voices of the 20th Century that he was responsible for blowing up the monument. Sutcliffe is a republican supporter who has been linked in the past to the Official Sinn Féin movement. He maintained that in Operation Humpty Dumpty, the explosive used was a mixture of gelignite and ammonal. He declined to confirm his remarks when he received a visit at home from Garda Special Branch detectives four months after his radio interview in August. Then, on the morning of 21 September, he was arrested under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act and invited to repeat his allegations at Store Street Garda Station. His reluctance to do so while in custody resulted in his release without charge that night. The Gardaí prepared a file for review by the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide if the matter should be pursued further.
The identity of the bombers has been a source of speculation and conflicting claims of responsibility.
Within a matter of days of the blowing up of the pillar, a group of Belfast school teachers: Gerry Burns, Finbar Carrolan, John Sullivan and Eamonn McGirr, known as The Go Lucky Four, reached the top of the Irish music charts with "Up Went Nelson", a popular folk song set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which maintained the number one spot for eight consecutive weeks.
Other songs were: