The Nelson Pillar (Irish: Colún Nelson), 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 destroyed by a bomb planted by Irish republicans in 1966.
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 Gold Hill, 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."The Lord Mayor of Dublin, James Vance, is credited with first coming up with the idea of honouring Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar with a monument, in 1805. After consulting the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the Duke of Richmond, he organised a meeting of leading citizens. A committee of 21 was duly appointed containing, as well as the Lord Mayor, John La Touche MP, Robert Shaw MP, Hans Hamilton MP, Arthur Guinness Jr and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Charles Long. A subscription was opened with the banks leading the way in forwarding funds. However, it took over two years for the finances to get close to the projected budget of over £5,000. The committee decided to start the project with what money they had, and succeeded in raising the rest of the money on time.
The original plans for the Pillar were submitted to the organising committee by William Wilkins (1778–1839), a London architect, Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, and accepted by them in 1808. However, for some reason, the committee wrote later that they were incapable of "executing his design precisely as he had given it." Francis Johnston (1760–1829), the architect who built the General Post Office (to the left in the picture above) was brought in to execute the design, and "afforded the necessary assistance with his acknowledged ability, which...he did with the utmost cheerfulness." He made several drawings of his own, one of which met the approval of the committee sufficiently for construction to start. Johnston and later architects laid out Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) so that the buildings, the GPO, and the Pillar were in scale to the size and length of the street and to each other.
Construction of the Pillar was started with the laying of the foundation stone on 15 February 1808. It was inaugurated with a procession of dignitaries including the Fellows and Provost of Trinity College and the Lord Lieutenant and his wife. "The windows of all the houses in the vicinity were crowded with spectators, and it was remarked that red was the favourite colour worn by most of the ladies present. It was considered that the city had probably never before seen a grander or more impressive cavalcade, and Mr. Betham, the Marshal, was complimented on the management and good order that prevailed. It was likewise a matter of congratulation that notwithstanding the great crowds, not the slightest accident occurred." The pillar itself was completed "by August 1809" and the statue of Nelson was hoisted into place.
The memorial plaque read:
- By the blessing of Almighty God
- To Commemorate the Transcendent Heroic
- Achievements of the Right Honourable
- Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson
- Duke of Bronti in Sicily,
- Vice-Admiral of the White Squadron of his Majesty's Fleet,
- Who fell gloriously in the Battle of Cape Trafalgar
- On the 21st Day of October, 1805, when
- he obtained for his Country a Victory
- over the Combined Fleets of France and
- Spain, Unparalleled in Naval History.
- This first stone of a Triumphal Pillar was
- laid by His Grace,
- Charles Duke of Richmond and Lennox
The building of Nelson's Pillar had been, from the outset, controversial. As early as September 1809 a paragraph appeared in Watty Cox's Irish Magazine, stating: "The statue of Nelson records the glory of a mistress and the transformation of our state into a discount office". Until 1922 most of the criticisms were due to aesthetic considerations or because it was considered an impediment to traffic. In May 1876 a letter to the editor expressed its author's feelings in verse:
|“||In the centre of our cityWhere the lines of traffic meet -|
In the very path of commerce,
Blocking up a noble street -
As a figure in a picture
Seems to make its right surroundings
Quite ridiculously small.
In 1876, Dublin Corporation took up the question of removal, but found it did not have the power to remove it. In 1879 the Corporation argued that it should be removed as it was "an ugly traffic hazard". It tried again in 1891, causing much debate in the city and in Parliament, but did not succeed due to financial considerations. A writer on Dublin's history in 1909, Dillon Cosgrave, acknowledged the temporary nature of the Pillar, remarking that "For a very long time, the project of removing the Pillar, which many condemn as an obstruction to traffic, has been mooted, but it has never taken definite shape".
In 1923, the debate was renewed when famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats called for the pillar to be removed on aesthetic grounds, saying "It's not a beautiful object". The debate was renewed again in 1926 and again in 1928. Several attempts were made subsequently to have it removed, including by Taoiseach Seán Lemass, in 1960. He said "[Nelson] has no place in the centre of our capital city overshadowing our principal national monument, which is the GPO". There were proposals to keep the pillar but to replace the statue of Nelson with other statues.
On 7 April 1954, the Dublin Brigade Irish Republican Army (IRA) sent a letter to Dublin Corporation, asking that it "seek legislation for the removal of the Nelson Pillar".
Politician and former SIPTU president Des Geraghty argued that, by the 1960s, "not many people wanted Nelson there...he was a relic of the Empire". Independent Dublin TD Frank Sherwin said: "Although I view Nelson as a great Englishman ... I hold that there should be a great historic Irishman put in his place".
On 29 October 1955, a group of nine University College Dublin students locked themselves inside the pillar and tried to melt the statue with flamethrowers. 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 02:00 on 8 March 1966, a group of former Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers, including Joe Christle, planted a bomb that destroyed the upper half of the pillar, throwing the statue of Nelson into the street and causing large chunks of stone to be thrown around. 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.
Six days after the original damage, on the morning of Monday 14 March 1966, 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's 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 the 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 a dedication plaque commemorating Nelson's achievements.
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:
- "Good Lord Nelson" by Tommy Makem
- "Nelson's Goodbye" by 'Galway Joe' Dolan, released as "Nelson's Farewell" by The Dubliners on their album Finnegan Wakes and as a single "Nelson's Farewell / The Foggy Dew", both in 1966