Nelson's Pillar facts for kids
Quick facts for kidsNelson's Pillar
Nelson's Pillar (circa 1830)
|Alternative names||The Nelson Pillar
|Groundbreaking||15 February 1808|
|Opening||21 October 1809|
|Destroyed||8–14 March 1966|
|Design and construction|
Nelson's Pillar (also known as the Nelson Pillar or simply the Pillar) was a large granite column capped by a statue of Horatio Nelson, built in the centre of what was then Sackville Street (later renamed O'Connell Street) in Dublin, Ireland. Completed in 1809 when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, it survived until March 1966, when it was severely damaged by explosives planted by Irish republicans. Its remnants were later destroyed by the Irish Army.
The decision to build the monument was taken by Dublin Corporation in the euphoria following Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The original design by William Wilkins was greatly modified by Francis Johnston, on grounds of cost. The statue was sculpted by Thomas Kirk. From its opening on 29 October 1809 the Pillar was a popular tourist attraction, but provoked aesthetic and political controversy from the outset. A prominent city centre monument honouring an Englishman rankled as Irish nationalist sentiment grew, and throughout the 19th century there were calls for it to be removed, or replaced with a memorial to an Irish hero.
Parts of central Dublin were destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising, but although it was near the rebels' headquarters, the Pillar remained unscathed. It remained in the city as most of Ireland became the independent Irish Free State in 1922, and the Republic of Ireland in 1949. The chief legal barrier to its removal was the trust created at the Pillar's inception, the terms of which gave the trustees a duty in perpetuity to preserve the monument. Successive Irish governments failed to deliver legislation overriding the trust. Although influential literary figures such as James Joyce, W. B. Yeats and Oliver St. John Gogarty defended the Pillar on historical and cultural grounds, pressure for its removal intensified in the years preceding the 50th anniversary of the Rising, and its sudden demise was, on the whole, well received by the public. Although it was widely believed that the action was the work of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the police were unable to identify any of those responsible.
After years of debate and numerous proposals, the site was occupied in 2003 by the Spire of Dublin, a slim needle-like structure rising almost three times the height of the Pillar. In 2000 a former republican activist gave a radio interview in which he admitted planting the explosives in 1966, but after questioning him the police decided not to take action. Relics of the Pillar are found in Dublin museums and appear as decorative stonework elsewhere, and its memory is preserved in numerous works of Irish literature.
Sackville Street and Blakeney
The redevelopment of Dublin north of the River Liffey began in the early 18th century, largely through the enterprise of the property speculator Luke Gardiner. His best-known work was the transformation in the 1740s of a narrow lane called Drogheda Street, which he demolished and turned into a broad thoroughfare lined with large and imposing town houses. He renamed it Sackville Street, in honour of Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset, who served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1731 to 1737 and from 1751 to 1755. After Gardiner's death in 1755 Dublin's growth continued, with many fine public buildings and grand squares, the city's status magnified by the presence of the Parliament of Ireland for six months of the year. The Acts of Union of 1800, which united Ireland and Great Britain under a single Westminster polity, ended the Irish parliament and presaged a period of decline for the city. The historian Tristram Hunt writes: "[T]he capital's dynamism vanished, absenteeism returned and the big houses lost their patrons".
The first monument in Sackville Street was built in 1759 in the location where the Nelson Pillar would eventually stand. The subject was William Blakeney, 1st Baron Blakeney, a Limerick-born army officer whose career extended over more than 60 years and ended with his surrender to the French after the Siege of Minorca in 1756. A brass statue sculpted by John van Nost the younger was unveiled on St Patrick's Day, 17 March 1759. Donal Fallon, in his history of the Pillar, states that almost from its inception the Blakeney statue was a target for vandalism. Its fate is uncertain; Fallon records that it might have been melted down for cannon, but it had certainly been removed by 1805.
On 21 October 1805, a Royal Naval fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the combined fleets of the French and Spanish navies in the Battle of Trafalgar. At the height of the battle Nelson was mortally wounded on board his flagship, HMS Victory; by the time he died later that day, victory was assured.
Nelson had been hailed in Dublin seven years earlier, after the Battle of the Nile, as defender of the Harp and Crown, the respective symbols of Ireland and Britain. When news of Trafalgar reached the city on 8 November, there were similar scenes of patriotic celebration, together with a desire that the fallen hero should be commemorated. The mercantile classes had particular reason to be grateful for a victory that restored the freedom of the high seas and removed the threat of a French invasion. Many of the city's population had relatives who had been involved in the battle: up to one-third of the sailors in Nelson's fleet were from Ireland, including around 400 from Dublin itself. In his short account of the Pillar, Dennis Kennedy considers that Nelson would have been regarded in the city as a hero, not just among the Protestant Ascendancy but by many Catholics among the rising middle and professional classes.
The first step towards a permanent memorial to Nelson was taken on 18 November 1805 by the city aldermen, who after sending a message of congratulation to King George III, agreed that the erection of a statue would form a suitable tribute to Nelson's memory. On 28 November, after a public meeting had supported this sentiment, a "Nelson committee" was established, chaired by the Lord Mayor. It contained four of the city's Westminster MPs, alongside other city notables including Arthur Guinness, the son of the brewery founder. The committee's initial tasks were to decide precisely what form the monument should take and where it should be put. They had also to raise the funds to pay for it.
Inception, design and construction
At its first meeting the Nelson committee established a public subscription, and early in 1806 invited artists and architects to submit design proposals for a monument. No specifications were provided, but the contemporary European vogue in commemorative architecture was for the classical form, typified by Trajan's Column in Rome. Monumental columns, or "pillars of victory", were uncommon in Ireland at the time; the Cumberland Column in Birr, County Offaly, erected in 1747, was a rare exception. From the entries submitted, the Nelson committee's choice was that of a young English architect, William Wilkins, then in the early stages of a distinguished career. Wilkins's proposals envisaged a tall Doric column on a plinth, surmounted by a sculpted Roman galley.
The choice of the Sackville Street site was not unanimous. The Wide Streets Commissioners were worried about traffic congestion, and argued for a riverside location visible from the sea. Another suggestion was for a seaside position, perhaps Howth Head at the entrance to Dublin Bay. The recent presence of the Blakeney statue in Sackville Street, and a desire to arrest the street's decline in the post-parliamentary years, were factors that may have influenced the final selection of that site which, Kennedy says, was the preferred choice of the Lord Lieutenant.
By mid-1807, fundraising was proving difficult; sums raised at that point were well short of the likely cost of erecting Wilkins's column. The committee informed the architect with regret that "means were not placed in their hands to enable them to gratify him, as well as themselves, by executing his design precisely as he had given it". They employed Francis Johnston, architect to the City Board of Works, to make cost-cutting adjustments to Wilkins's scheme. Johnston simplified the design, substituting a large functional block or pedestal for Wilkins's delicate plinth, and replacing the proposed galley with a statue of Nelson. Thomas Kirk, a sculptor from Cork, was commissioned to provide the statue, to be fashioned from Portland stone.
By December 1807 the fund stood at £3,827, far short of the estimated £6,500 required to finance the project. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1808 the committee felt confident enough to begin the work, and organised the laying of the foundation stone. This ceremony took place on 15 February 1808—the day following the anniversary of Nelson's victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797—amid much pomp, in the presence of the new Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Richmond, along with various civic dignitaries and city notables. A memorial plaque eulogising Nelson's Trafalgar victory was attached to the stone. The committee continued to raise money as construction proceeded; when the project was complete in the autumn of 1809, costs totalled £6,856, but contributions had reached £7,138, providing the committee with a surplus of £282.
When finished, the monument complete with its statue rose to a height of 134 feet (40.8 m). The four sides of the pedestal were engraved with the names and dates of Nelson's greatest victories. A spiral stairway of 168 steps ascended the hollow interior of the column, to a viewing platform immediately beneath the statue. According to the committee's published report, 22,090 cubic feet (626 m3) of black limestone and 7,310 cubic feet (207 m3) of granite had been used to build the column and its pedestal. The Pillar opened to the public on 21 October 1809, on the fourth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar; for ten pre-decimal pence, visitors could climb to a viewing platform just below the statue, and enjoy what an early report describes as "a superb panoramic view of the city, the country and the fine bay".
The Pillar quickly became a popular tourist attraction; Kennedy writes that "for the next 157 years its ascent was a must on every visitor's list". Yet from the beginning there were criticisms, on both political and aesthetic grounds. The September 1809 issue of the Irish Monthly Magazine, edited by the revolution-minded Walter "Watty" Cox, reported that "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". In an early (1818) history of the city of Dublin, the writers express awe at the scale of the monument, but are critical of several of its features: its proportions are described as "ponderous", the pedestal as "unsightly" and the column itself as "clumsy". However, the Hibernian Magazine thought the statue was a good likeness of its subject, and that the Pillar's position in the centre of the wide street gave the eye a focal point in what was otherwise "wastes of pavements".
By 1830, rising nationalist sentiment in Ireland made it likely that the Pillar was "the Ascendancy's last hurrah"—Kennedy observes that it probably could not have been built at any later date. Nevertheless, the monument often attracted favourable comment from visitors; in 1842 the writer William Makepeace Thackeray noted Nelson "upon a stone-pillar" in the middle of the "exceedingly broad and handsome" Sackville Street: "The Post Office is on his right hand (only it is cut off); and on his left, 'Gresham's' and the 'Imperial Hotel' ". A few years later, the monument was a source of pride to some citizens, who dubbed it "Dublin's Glory" when Queen Victoria visited the city in 1849.
Between 1840 and 1843 Nelson's Column was erected in London's Trafalgar Square. With an overall height of 170 feet (52 m) it was taller than its Dublin equivalent and, at £47,000, much more costly to erect. It has no internal staircase or viewing platform. The London column was the subject of an attack during the Fenian dynamite campaign in May 1884, when a quantity of explosives was placed at its base but failed to detonate.
In 1853 the queen attended the Dublin Great Industrial Exhibition, where a city plan was displayed that envisaged the removal of the Pillar. This proved impossible, as since 1811 legal responsibility for the Pillar had been vested in a trust, under the terms of which the trustees were required "to embellish and uphold the monument in perpetuation of the object for which it was subscribed". Any action to remove or resite the Pillar, or replace the statue, required the passage of an Act of Parliament in London; Dublin Corporation (the city government) had no authority in the matter. No action followed the city plan suggestion, but the following years saw regular attempts to remove the monument. A proposal was made in 1876 by Alderman Peter McSwiney, a former Lord Mayor, to replace the "unsightly structure" with a memorial to the recently deceased Sir John Gray, who had done much to provide Dublin with a clean water supply. The Corporation was unable to advance this idea.
In 1882 the Moore Street Market and Dublin City Improvement Act was passed by the Westminster parliament, overriding the trust and giving the Corporation authority to resite the Pillar, but subject to a strict timetable, within which the city authorities found it impossible to act. The Act lapsed and the Pillar remained; a similar attempt, with the same result, was made in 1891. Not all Dubliners favoured demolition; some businesses considered the Pillar to be the city's focal point, and the tramway company petitioned for its retention as it marked the central tram terminus. "In many ways", says Fallon, "the pillar had become part of the fabric of the city". Kennedy writes: "A familiar and very large if rather scruffy piece of the city's furniture, it was The Pillar, Dublin's Pillar rather than Nelson's Pillar ... it was also an outing, an experience". The Dublin sculptor John Hughes invited students at the Metropolitan School of Art to "admire the elegance and dignity" of Kirk's statue, "and the beauty of the silhouette".
In 1894 there were some significant alterations to the Pillar's fabric. The original entry on the west side, whereby visitors entered the pedestal by a flight of steps taking them down below street level, was replaced by a new ground level entrance on the south side, with a grand porch. The whole monument was surrounded by heavy iron railings. In the new century, despite the growing nationalism within Dublin—80 per cent of the Corporation's councillors were nationalists of some description—the pillar was liberally decorated with flags and streamers to mark the 1905 Trafalgar centenary. The changing political atmosphere had long been signalled by the arrival in Sackville Street of further monuments, all celebrating distinctively Irish heroes, in what the historian Yvonne Whelan describes as defiance of the British Government, a "challenge in stone". Between the 1860s and 1911, Nelson was joined by monuments to Daniel O'Connell, William Smith O'Brien and Charles Stewart Parnell, as well as Sir John Gray and the temperance campaigner Father Mathew. Meanwhile, in 1861, after decades of construction, the Wellington Monument in Dublin's Phoenix Park was completed, the foundation stone having been laid in 1817. This vast obelisk, 220 feet (67 m) high and 120 feet (37 m) square at the base, honoured Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Dublin-born and a former Chief Secretary for Ireland. Unlike the Pillar, Wellington's obelisk has attracted little controversy and has not been the subject of physical attacks.
Easter Rising, April 1916
On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, units of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized several prominent buildings and streets in central Dublin, including the General Post Office (GPO) in Sackville Street, one of the buildings nearest the Pillar. They set up headquarters at the GPO where they declared an Irish Republic under a provisional government. One of the first recorded actions of the Easter Rising occurred near the Pillar when lancers from the nearby Marlborough Street barracks, sent to investigate the disturbance, were fired on from the GPO. They withdrew in confusion, leaving four soldiers and two horses dead.
During the days that followed, Sackville Street and particularly the area around the Pillar became a battleground. According to some histories, insurgents attempted to blow up the Pillar. The accounts are unconfirmed and were disputed by many that fought in the Rising, on the grounds that the Pillar's large base provided them with useful cover as they moved to and from other rebel positions. By Thursday night, British artillery fire had set much of Sackville Street ablaze, but according to the writer Peter De Rosa's account: "On his pillar, Nelson surveyed it all serenely, as though he were lit up by a thousand lamps". The statue was visible against the fiery backdrop from as far as Killiney, 9 miles (14 km) away.
By Saturday, when the provisional government finally surrendered, many of the Sackville Street buildings between the Pillar and the Liffey had been destroyed or badly damaged, including the Imperial Hotel that Thackeray had admired. Of the GPO, only the façade remained; against the tide of opinion Bernard Shaw said the demolition of the city's classical architecture scarcely mattered: "What does matter is the Liffey slums have not been demolished". An account in a New York newspaper reported that the Pillar had been lost in the destruction of the street, but it had sustained only minor damage, chiefly bullet marks on the column and statue itself—one shot is said to have taken off Nelson's nose.
In an independent Ireland
After the Anglo-Irish war of 1919–21 and the treaty that followed, Ireland was partitioned; Dublin became the capital of the Irish Free State, a Dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. From December 1922, when the Free State was inaugurated, the Pillar became an issue for the Irish rather than the British government. In 1923, when Sackville Street was again in ruins during the Irish Civil War, The Irish Builder and Engineer magazine called the original siting of the Pillar a "blunder" and asked for its removal, a view echoed by the Dublin Citizens Association. The poet William Butler Yeats, who had become a member of the Irish Senate, favoured its re-erection elsewhere, but thought it should not, as some wished, be destroyed, because "the life and work of the people who built it are part of our tradition."
Sackville Street was renamed O'Connell Street in 1924. The following year the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Dublin Civic Survey demanded legislation to allow the Pillar's removal, without success. Pressure continued, and in 1926 The Manchester Guardian reported that the Pillar was to be taken down, "as it was a hindrance to modern traffic". Requests for action—removal, destruction or the replacement of the statue with that of an Irish hero—continued up to the Second World War and beyond; the main stumbling blocks remained the trustees' strict interpretation of the terms of the trust, and the unwillingness of successive Irish governments to take legislative action. In 1936 the magazine of the ultra-nationalist Blueshirts movement remarked that this inactivity showed a failure in the national spirit: "The conqueror is gone, but the scars which he left remain, and the victim will not even try to remove them".
By 1949 the Irish Free State had evolved into the Republic of Ireland and left the British Commonwealth, but not all Irish opinion favoured the removal of the Pillar. That year the architectural historian John Harvey called it "a grand work", and argued that without it, "O'Connell Street would lose much of its vitality". Most of the pressure to get rid of it, he said, came from "traffic maniacs who ... fail to visualise the chaos which would result from creating a through current of traffic at this point". In a 1955 radio broadcast Thomas Bodkin, former director of the National Gallery of Ireland, praised not only the monument, but Nelson himself: "He was a man of extraordinary gallantry. He lost his eye fighting bravely, and his arm in a similar fashion".
On 29 October 1955, a group of nine students from University College Dublin obtained keys from the Pillar's custodian and locked themselves inside, with an assortment of equipment including flame throwers. From the gallery they hung a poster of Kevin Barry, a Dublin Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer executed by the British during the War of Independence. A crowd gathered below, and began to sing the Irish rebel song "Kevin Barry". Eventually members of the Gardaí (Irish police) broke into the Pillar and ended the demonstration. No action was taken against the students, whose principal purpose, the Gardaí claimed, was publicity.
In 1956, members of the Fianna Fáil party, then in opposition, proposed that the statue be replaced by one of Robert Emmet, Protestant leader of an abortive rebellion in 1803. They thought that such a gesture might inspire Protestants in Northern Ireland to fight for a reunited Ireland. In the North the possibility of dismantling and re-erecting the monument in Belfast was raised in the Stormont parliament, but the initiative failed to gain the support of the Northern Ireland government.
In 1959 a new Fianna Fáil government under Seán Lemass deferred the question of the Pillar's removal on the grounds of cost; five years later Lemass agreed to "look at" the question of replacing Nelson's statue with one of Patrick Pearse, the leader of the Easter Rising, in time for the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966. An offer from the Irish-born American trade union leader Mike Quill to finance the removal of the Pillar was not taken up, and as the anniversary approached, Nelson remained in place.
Shortly after 1:30 on the morning of 8 March 1966, a powerful explosion destroyed the upper portion of the Pillar and brought Nelson's statue crashing to the ground amid hundreds of tons of rubble. O'Connell Street was almost deserted at the time, although a dance in the nearby Hotel Metropole's ballroom was about to end and bring crowds on to the street. There were no casualties—a taxi-driver parked close by had a narrow escape—and damage to property was relatively light given the strength of the blast. What was left of the Pillar was a jagged stump, 70 feet (21 m) high.
In the first government response to the action the Justice minister, Brian Lenihan, condemned what he described as "an outrage which was planned and committed without any regard to the lives of the citizens". This response was considered "tepid" by The Irish Times, whose editorial deemed the attack "a direct blow to the prestige of the state and the authority of the government". Kennedy suggests that government anger was mainly directed at what they considered a distraction from the official 50th anniversary celebrations of the Rising.
The absence of the pillar was regretted by some who felt the city had lost one of its most prominent landmarks. The Irish Literary Association was anxious that, whatever future steps were taken, the lettering on the pedestal should be preserved; the Irish Times reported that the Royal Irish Academy of Music was considering legal measures to prevent removal of the remaining stump. Reactions among the general public were relatively light-hearted, typified by the numerous songs inspired by the incident. These included the immensely popular "Up Went Nelson", set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and performed by a group of Belfast schoolteachers, which remained at the top of the Irish charts for eight weeks. An American newspaper reported that the mood in the city was one of gaiety, with shouts of "Nelson has lost his last battle!" Some accounts relate that the Irish president, Éamon de Valera, phoned The Irish Press to suggest the headline: "British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air"—according to the senator and presidential candidate David Norris, "the only recorded instance of humour in that lugubrious figure".
The Pillar's fate was sealed when Dublin Corporation issued a "dangerous building" notice. The trustees agreed that the stump should be removed. A last-minute request by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland for an injunction to delay the demolition on planning grounds was rejected by Justice Thomas Teevan. On 14 March the Army destroyed the stump by a controlled explosion, watched at a safe distance by a crowd who, the press reported, "raised a resounding cheer". There was a scramble for souvenirs, and many parts of the stonework were taken from the scene. Some of these relics, including Nelson's head, eventually found their way into museums; parts of the lettered stonework from the pedestal are displayed in the grounds of the Butler House hotel in Kilkenny, while smaller remnants were used to decorate private gardens. Contemporary and subsequent accounts record that the army's explosion caused more damage than the first, but this, Fallon says, is a myth; damage claims arising from the second explosion amounted to less than a quarter of the sum claimed as a result of the original blast.
It was initially assumed that the monument was destroyed by the IRA. The Guardian reported on 9 March that six men had been arrested and questioned, but their identities were not revealed and there were no charges. An IRA spokesman denied involvement, stating that they had no interest in demolishing mere symbols of foreign domination: "We are interested in the destruction of the domination itself". In the absence of any leads, rumours suggested that the Basque separatist movement ETA might be responsible, perhaps as part of a training exercise with an Irish republican splinter group; in the mid-1960s the explosives expertise of ETA was generally acknowledged.
No further information was forthcoming until 2000, when during a Raidió Teilifís Éireann interview a former IRA member, Liam Sutcliffe claimed he had placed the bomb which detonated in the Pillar. In the 1950s Sutcliffe was associated with a group of dissident volunteers led by Joe Christle (1927–98), who had been expelled from the IRA in 1956 for "recklessness". In early 1966 Sutcliffe learned that Christle's group was planning "Operation Humpty Dumpty", an attack on the Pillar, and offered his services. According to Sutcliffe, on 28 February he placed a bomb within the Pillar, timed to go off in the early hours of the next morning. The explosive was a mixture of gelignite and ammonal. It failed to detonate; Sutcliffe says that he returned early the next morning, recovered the device and redesigned its timer. On 7 March, shortly before the Pillar closed for the day, he climbed the inner stairway and placed the refurbished bomb near to the top of the shaft before going home. He learned of the success of his mission the next day, he says, having slept undisturbed through the night. Following his revelations, Sutcliffe was questioned by the police but not charged. He did not name others involved in the action, apart from Christle and his brother.
On 29 April 1969 the Irish parliament passed the Nelson Pillar Act, terminating the Pillar Trust and vesting ownership of the site in Dublin Corporation. The trustees received £21,170 in compensation for the Pillar's destruction, and a further sum for loss of income. In the debate, Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington argued that the Pillar had been capable of repair and should have been re-assembled and rebuilt.
For more than twenty years the site stood empty, while various campaigns sought to fill the space. In 1970 the Arthur Griffith Society suggested a monument to Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, and Pearse, whose centenary would fall in 1979, was the subject of several proposals. None of these schemes were accepted by the Corporation. A request in 1987 by the Dublin Metropolitan Streets Commission that the Pillar be rebuilt—with a different statue—was likewise rejected. In 1988, as part of the city's 1,000th anniversary celebrations, the Smurfit Millennium Fountain was erected close to the site. This was commissioned by a Dublin businessman Michael Smurfit in memory of his father; it incorporated a bronze statue of a woman, sculpted by Éamonn O'Doherty. The monument, known colloquially as the Anna Livia, was not universally appreciated; O'Doherty's fellow-sculptor Edward Delaney called it an "atrocious eyesore".
1988 saw the launch of the Pillar Project, aimed at encouraging artists and architects to bring forward new ideas for an appropriate permanent memorial to replace Nelson. Suggestions included a 110 metres (360 ft) flagpole, a triumphal arch modelled on the Paris Arc de Triomphe, and a "Tower of Light" with a platform that would restore Nelson's view over the city. In 1997 Dublin Corporation announced a formal design competition for a monument to mark the new millennium in 2000. The winning entry was Ian Ritchie's Spire of Dublin, a plain, needle-like structure rising 120 metres (390 ft) from the street. The design was approved; on 22 January 2003 it was completed, despite some political and artistic opposition. During the excavations preceding the Spire's construction, the foundation stone of the Nelson Pillar was recovered. Press stories that a time capsule containing valuable coins had also been discovered fascinated the public for a while, but proved illusory.
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