O’Connell Street, March 8th, 1966. 1:30am. Admiral Horatio Nelson fell to the street with such velocity that his entire body shattered. All around him the granite column upon which he had stood for nearly 160 years thundered into the ground, sending enormous clouds of dust into Dublin City’s night sky. It was 1:30am on 8th March 1966 and the Christle Group had just accomplished the primary mission of Operation Humpty Dumpty: Nelson’s Pillar was no more.
For seven or eight generations of Dubliners, the Pillar – as it was generally known – represented the focal point of the city. The story of this epic monument is told in ‘The Pillar – The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar’, a succulent 130-page tome by Dublin historian Donal Fallon, one of the trio behind the acclaimed website blog ‘Come Here to Me!’
Although born many years after the Pillar was destroyed, Fallon still senses Nelson’s shadow looming over central Dublin whenever he walks past the Spire of Life, the 2003 monument that now stands in its place. Eschewing any of the potentially yawn-inducing hazards of writing about a chunk of rock, he deftly weaves the narrative of Irish history through his story so that the reader is almost standing on the viewing platform of the Pillar itself when considering events such as the Napoleonic Wars, the rise of Daniel O’Connell and the War of Independence.
It is a grand tale. Constructed of Wicklow granite on the outside and black limestone within, the 134-foot Doric column was easily the most eye-catching feature on O’Connell Street, or Sackville Street as it was, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The concept of a monument to honour Horatio Nelson first arose just weeks after the British Admiral’s death during his epoch-shaping annihilation of Napoleon’s fleet at the battle Trafalgar in October 1805.[i] The victory was lavishly celebrated in Dublin, not least by the merchant classes whose maritime trade had hitherto been severely restricted by ships from the French and Spanish enemy fleet. Imperialists applauded the manner in which Nelson had given his eye, his arm and finally his life for the preservation of the Empire. Fallon also observes that between a third and a quarter of the sailors who served under Nelson were Irishmen, including 400 from Dublin.[ii]
Not everyone was so keen on Nelson – ‘the one-handled adulterer’ as James Joyce would call him. The members and supporters of the United Irishmen who rose up in 1798 were understandably aghast at commemorating the man whose harrying of the French fleet that fateful year had kyboshed Napoleon’s ability to aid Wolfe Tone and the Irish rebels. Others complained that Nelson – the son of a staunchly Protestant clergyman from Norfolk – had never even visited Ireland.
At the behest of the Aldermen of Dublin, a public subscription campaign was opened to erect a monument to commemorate ‘the brilliant Victories of the Late Lord Viscount Nelson’ and his ‘lamented but glorious death’. Arthur Guinness, son of the original brewer, and the banking family of La Touche were to the fore amongst the many citizens, Protestant and Catholic alike, who raised a fund in excess of £6,399 to cover the cost of the Pillar, including railing, eight lamps, scaffolding, two flags and, in due course, a statue of Nelson. Almost invisible to the naked eye, the statue was the work of Thomas Kirk, an up-and-coming Cork designer.
The pillar was designed by William Wilkins, a young English architect, but the work was carried out by the Armagh-born architect Francis Johnston whose other works would later include the nearby General Post Office. One of its highlights was the viewing platform, accessible via a narrow spiral stairwell of 168 steps that, for an admission fee of ten pence, allowed visitors to behold the city from behind ‘a parapet of iron railing’.
Unveiled on the fourth anniversary of Trafalgar in 1809, the Pillar was to prove controversial from the outset.[iii] Some claimed it ruined the street, breaking up the vista and darkening all in its shadow. Others slated it as aesthetically out of proportion with the otherwise low city. Those who lived nearby objected to the prying eyes that now gazed in on their lives from the viewing platform.[iv]
However, the Pillar quickly became ‘part of the fabric of the city’. A perfect meeting place for loyalists, it occupied centre stage for many 19th century regal celebrations at which fireworks were invariably set off from the viewing platform.
Fruit and lower sellers were quick to establish themselves at its base, while the tram companies likewise regarded it as ‘a natural location’ from which city trams could depart.
It also became an icon for anyone visiting Dublin which was very much a port city at this time’; ships docking on the Liffey would have had a clear view of the memorial.
During the late 19th century, a growing nationalist presence within Dublin Corporation ensured that the Admiral was joined on the street by new statues commemorating men of a rather less imperialist bent – Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell.
Inevitably, Nelson’s presence began to look ever more awkward as Ireland advanced towards independence.
During the Easter Rising of 1916, a copy of the Proclamation of Independence was placed at foot of the Pillar while both the figure and shaft were ‘thickly studded’ with bullets. According to one report, ‘the warrior’s nose’ was shot off although remarkably the Pillar avoided being hit when the gunboat Helga unleashed her fusillade, reducing so much of O’Connell Street to rubble. Indeed, many 1916 veterans felt considerable dismay that when the dust of rebellion had settled, the Admiral retained his predominant vantage point.[v]
The Pillar also survived the War of Independence and Civil War, although snipers from the Free State army occupied it during the battle of Dublin in 1922.
Frank Hall described Nelson’s status in the formative years of the Free State as that of ‘a stranger, stranded on a foreign shore, left behind by the receding tide of Empire.’[vi]
The fate of the Pillar became the subject of much discussion in the Dáil and the Seanad, not least given its proximity to the GPO, by now a deeply symbolic building.
W. B. Yeats was one of the first to jump in, proposed that the Pillar be dismantled and rebuilt somewhere less offensive.[vii] Others rather sensibly proposed changing the figure on top, with the Blessed Virgin, St Patrick, Wolfe Tone (as ‘the father of Irish republicanism’) and Robert Emmet heading the list of candidates.[viii]
The Blueshirts wanted it gone, as did many members of the IRA including Seán Russell, the IRA’s chief of staff who allegedly instigated an aborted plot to blow it up in the 1930s. However, by the 1950s, many Dubliners reckoned the Pillar had won what Fallon calls ‘a sort of squatters’ rights claim to O’Connell Street’.
The destruction of such an imperial monument was by no means unknown in Dublin. One of the strengths of Fallon’s book is the concise but informed manner in which he accounts for much of the iconography that formed part of Dublin City’s colonial streetscape. Many would succumb to Republican gelignite, including the mounted equestrian statues of General Gough in Phoenix Park, George II in St. Stephen’s Green and William of Orange on College Green.
In 1964, the Pillar acquired an unlikely champion in the shape of Red Mike Quill, a Kerry-born co-founder of the Transport Workers Union of America, who offered ‘cheerfully to finance the removal’, even proposing its transportation to Buckingham Palace.[ix]
A heart attack in January 1966 ended Mike Quill’s ambitions. Six weeks later the Pillar was blown up. Whodunit rumours were rife. When the IRA formally disclaimed responsibility, suspicion rather bizarrely switched to Basque nationalists. Whoever it was, the bombmaker was evidently a plastic explosives expert; both the Pillar and the statue were blown upwards rather than outwards and damage was actually minimal. Nobody was hurt.
In 2000, a veteran Republican Liam Sutcliffe came forward to say he had made the bomb from gelignite and ammonal. Sutcliffe was a member of the Christle Group, headed up by Joe Christle, a qualified barrister, accountant and champion cyclist.[x] The group, a left-wing splinter of the IRA, came up with the idea of destroying the Pillar during a chat in a bar on Belfast’s Crumlin Road in 1966. They concluded that toppling the Admiral would be a much more apt way of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising than ‘functions and dinners’. They christened their project Operation Humpty Dumpty.
Irish Army engineers were assigned the delicate task of removing the rest of the pillar. Their controlled demolition did not, as urban legend has it, knock out every window on O’Connell Street.[xi]
Some lamented that the destruction ‘made Dublin look more like Birmingham and less like an ancient city on the River Liffey, because the presence of the pillar gave Dublin an internationally known appearance.’ The bombing was also a considerable blow to authority, not least given the largely jovial reaction to its destruction. A number of folk songs were quickly released, including ‘Nelson’s Farewell’ by The Dubliners and ‘Up Went Nelson’ by The Go Lucky Four, which maintained the number one spot for eight consecutive weeks.
Nelson’s voyage was not yet over. With a degree of pleasure, Fallon charts the ‘frantic scramble for souvenirs and relics’ that began within moments of the monument’s fall. Nelson’s sword remains at large but his head had an intriguing journey. Stolen from the Corporation Yard on Ardee Street by NCAD students, it appeared on stage with The Dubliners, in a fashion shoot on Killiney Beach and in ‘a dingy antique bazaar’ in London’s West End before reaching the relative safety of its present home in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street. The slabs from the pillar that spelled out Nelson’s victories are now to be found at Butler House, Kilkenny.
The final chapter in this accessible and well-researched book explores the debates on how best to replace the Pillar, culminating with Ian Ritchie’s 2003 Spire of Light.
The book is dedicated to the late Shane MacThomáis, the much lamented Glasnevin Cemetery historian who passed away earlier this year.
Donal Fallon, ‘The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar’ (Dublin: New Island, 2014) via http://newisland.ie/product/the-pillar/
[i] The Admiral’s body was swiftly pickled in a cask of brandy (and later wine) and sent home for a hero’s burial.
[ii] Fallon quotes Dennis Kennedy whose research indicates that between ‘one quarter to one third of the sailors who manned Nelson’s fleet were from Ireland, including 400 from Dublin.’
[iii] The foundation stone was laid on 15 February 1808 by the Duke of Richmond, then Lord Lieutenant, with a huge procession of marching bands and military parades through the city centre.
[iv] There was also the occasional suicide to contend with, including a Great War veteran who hurled himself from the platform in 1917.
[v] ‘One unlucky shot took away the warriors nose.’ (The Irish Times, 13 May 1916, quoted in Donal Fallon, p. 57.
[vi] Donal Fallon, p. 91.
[vii] He reasoned that it belonged to a minority, representing ‘the feeling of Protestant Ireland for a man who helped to break the power of Napoleon’.
[viii] The proposition for Protestant rebel Robert Emmet was to ‘inspire the young Protestants of the North to claim Ireland as their own’.
[ix] Quill offered ‘cheerfully to finance the removal’ … ‘in a dignified manner, and without hatred or rancour on the part of anybody’, even proposing its transportation to Buckingham Palace. Quill’s gripe was that he said Americans thought of it the same was as they thought of the Statue of Liberty which was entirely the wrong message.
[x] On 29 October 1955, Joseph Christle headed a group of radical students from University College Dublin who forced their way into the Pillar, locked themselves inside and unfurled a huge canvas banner of Kevin Barry.
[xi] Fallon addresses other tall tales of the various people who are said to have either participated in the bombing or to have stolen the head afterwards.