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3 March 2005 Edition

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Nelson ousted - Remembering the Past

BY SHANE Mac THOMÁIS

On 8 March 1966, 39 years ago, Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson was removed from his pillar in O'Connell Street.

Nelson's Pillar was, as the name would suggest, a large granite pillar topped by a statue of Lord Nelson, located in the centre of O'Connell Street in Dublin. Erected in 1808 to honour Nelson three years after his death at Trafalgar, it was largely paid for by rich bankers and brewers, such as the Guinness and La Touche families. The pillar cost £6,856 to erect. In the year it was completed, low-paid workers were earning £8 a year. 857 years of work!

The pillar was a Doric column that rose 121 feet from the ground and was topped by a 13-foot tall statue in Portland stone by Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk, giving it a total height of 134 feet. It was designed by Francis Johnson from Armagh, the architect whose other work on O'Connell Street, the General Post Office, was shelled by crown forces in 1916. Johnson 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. The original entrance to the pillar was underground, but GP Baxter designed a porch in 1894 which was added to allow direct access from the street.

With the rise of Irish republicanism in the early 20th Century, there were increased calls for this symbol of imperialism to be removed from the capital's main thoroughfare. These largely went unheeded and Nelson remained on his perch. In 1938, an unsuccessful attempt was made by the IRA to blow up the pillar. A contingent of IRA men led by Peadar O'Flaherty left Frederick St and proceeded towards O'Connell Street with wads of highly volatile gelignite in their pockets. As they approached the pillar, they saw the gatekeeper locking up and the opportunity was lost.

The pillar was to remain in place for another 28 years, until a group of former IRA men, including Joe Christle and Liam Sutcliffe, planted a bomb that destroyed its upper half at 1.32am on 8 March 1966. Liam Sutcliffe, in an interview with RTÉ, maintained that in Operation Humpty Dumpty, the explosive used was a mixture of gelignite and ammonal. The blast threw the statue of Nelson into the street and caused large chunks of stone to be flung around the vicinity.

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 19-year-old taxi driver Steve Maughan, whose vehicle was destroyed.

After the explosion, O'Connell Street enjoyed a party atmosphere for a few days as people crowded in to appreciate the novelty that was referred to around town as 'the Stump'.

Two days after the explosion, Irish Free State Army engineers blew up the rest of the pillar, after judging the vestigial structure too unsafe to restore. These experts' explosion caused more destruction on O'Connell Street than the original blast, breaking many windows and causing Dubliners to comment that "the republicans were much better at this sort of thing".

The rubble was taken to the East Wall dump and the lettering from the plinth was moved to the gardens of Butler House, Kilkenny.

Following the clear up of the site, Ken Dolan and six other students from the National College of Art and Design stole Nelson's head on St Patrick's Day from a storage shed on Clanbrassil Street as a fundraising 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 back about six months after taking it, and it is now in the Civic Museum in Dublin.

The Nelson Pillar Act was passed in 1967, 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 Spire of Dublin was erected there in 2003, which cost €6 million to erect. In the year it was completed, the minimum wage for a worker was €14,560 a year.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

Buy An Phoblacht magazine here

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