Trading Queen Vic for a car park

April 11, 1997

The Irish not only threw out the British, but their statues too. Paula Murphy traces the ruins of Dublin's imperial past

Art history may not, at first glance, seem to be very relevant to a discussion of Ireland's bitter and bloody political conflict. But over the past century a little-publicised war has been played out on the streets of Dublin between silent statues; representations of English rulers and their soldier heroes versus nationalist commemorations of political leaders and revolutionary activists.

The positioning of the various statues throughout Dublin at the end of the 19th century was strategic. The monuments were propagandist, intended to be lasting and timeless. But since English rule dictated the type of monuments erected, the inherent power of much of the statuary became suspect and its downfall inevitable. The result in Dublin has been a tumbling of the representatives of British rule, while their nationalist opponents remain in position.

Ten imperial monuments were publicly positioned in Dublin by the beginning of the 20th century. Four were equestrian statues: William III in College Green; George I in the grounds of the Mansion House; George II in St Stephen's Green and Viscount Gough in Phoenix Park. Two colossal architectural monuments commemorated soldier heroes. Lord Nelson was "skied" on top of a triumphal column in Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) and the Duke of Wellington's gigantic obelisk is positioned inside the entrance to Phoenix Park. Less overtly grand, statues of two lord lieutenants of Ireland, the Earl of Eglinton and Winton and the Earl of Carlisle, were erected in St Stephen's Green and Phoenix Park respectively. Queen Victoria and her prince also found perches in Dublin in the grounds of Leinster House.

Constant abuse was directed towards eight of these ten monuments - which are now no longer in place. Standing in a particularly public location, William III drew most aggression, serving as a focal point for annual Orange celebrations on July 1, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, and on November 4, the king's birthday. On these dates the statue was painted white, the figure adorned with a yellow cloak, the horse garlanded with orange lilies and ribbons, and the surrounding railings painted orange and blue. Placing shamrock and green and white ribbons (the national colours) under the horse's uplifted foot was even more provocative to the nationalists, who retaliated with stone throwing and rioting. The monument was tarred and greased, daubed with paint and covered with mud, and bits of it were removed. It was finally taken away in the aftermath of an explosion on Armistice Day in 1928.

The equestrian monument, in its line of descent from the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol in Rome, signals power and authority. None of those erected in Dublin remains in place. The equestrian George II was blown up in the early hours after the coronation of George VI on May 12 1937. This inspired the director of the Barber Institute in Birmingham, Thomas Bodkin, to rush over to Dublin and purchase for the institute the statue of George I, already removed from its pedestal and lying, in a somewhat undignified manner, in the yard at the back of Mansion House. Thus one, at least, of Dublin's royal equestrian monuments was rescued from destruction and oblivion.

The equestrian portrait of Irishman and British military campaigner Viscount Gough suffered much the same fate as that of William III, daubed with paint, beheaded and set with explosives. Repairs in the aftermath of an explosion in 1956 had not been carried out when, in July 1957, the statue was blown up and much more extensively damaged. The unoccupied pedestal remained in place for four years, while the government deliberated over what was the best way forward - afraid to waste public money on restoration, if the monument was to be damaged again, and yet equally afraid to be seen to capitulate to terrorist violence. Ultimately removal of the pedestal was sanctioned in 1961. The statue remained in storage until its sale in 1986.

With the gaining of independence in 1922, many in Ireland found the statues singularly inappropriate for public display in the capital city. Local councils and corporations, Old IRA Brigades, and Fianna Fail Cumanns, all requested the removal of monuments which they considered "a spiritual affront to the Irish nation". In 1938 a reply to one such request from the office of the taoiseach (Eamon de Valera was then prime minister) stated that "it is not the policy of the government to remove public monuments or sculpture on public buildings solely for the reason that they are associated with the former British regime. There may, in some cases, be reasons of historical or artistic interest which would make it undesirable to take such action."

It was an admirable ideological position. Nonetheless, as long as the monuments remained in place they were at risk. If you could not be seen to dislodge a statue for political reasons, you could remove it to make way for cars. In September 1947, the Irish government approved the provision of parking for 66 cars in the front courtyard of Leinster House, which had become the seat of the Irish parliament, and in so doing sanctioned the dismantling of the statue of Queen Victoria. The monument, in pieces, remained in storage for nearly 40 years. Now, however, it is public once more. Dublin's Queen Victoria sits on a pedestal in Sydney, given to the Australians by the Irish government in 1987.

The statues of the two lords lieutenant were unceremoniously blown up in July and August 1958. The Irish Republican Movement, by then in the business of issuing statements disclaiming connection with atrocities, denied responsibility for both explosions stating that "the creation of such incidents is against Republican policy". However, it is certainly the case that war had been declared on the statues of the capital city. Dublin was to be stripped of any statuesque reminder of British rule in Ireland. Sadly, the terrorist desire to obliterate the evidence of the past ignores the place of history in the development of our culture. As W. B. Yeats said, when opposing the proposed break-up of Nelson's column in 1923: "The life and work of the people who erected it are a part of our tradition. I think we should accept the whole past of this nation and not pick and choose."

The last of the monuments to be destroyed was the Nelson column. In 1955, the taoiseach of the day, John A. Costelloe, rejecting suggestions of removal, recommended that the public be made aware of the intrinsic artistic value of the structure, adding that the monument served as a permanent reminder of freedom achieved. However the Pillar, as it was familiarly known, while a public monument, was in fact private property, in the ownership of three trustees. The government was therefore not in a position to dictate action.

In the early hours of March 8 1966, terrorist explosives removed the naval hero from his pedestal. The action was prompted by the imminent Easter celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1916 rising. The fact that the Pillar stood beside the General Post Office, from where the rising was launched, is not insignificant. The action was considered to be the work of a fringe organisation of militants.

Monuments commemorating Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington remain in place. The Albert memorial is still in position, unscathed, in the grounds of Leinster House. While inaccessible to the public, it is perfectly visible from the street. In this location, at the rear of the Irish parliament building, the prince has constant police protection. The Wellington obelisk is also still in situ, but it is an architectural feature rather than an imposing portrait image.

The need to purge the streets of politically unacceptable monuments has partly destroyed the character of Dublin, along with some of our heritage. These monuments were executed by sculptors of considerable repute. Some fine sculptural works have disappeared. More enlightened terrorists in the earlier 20th century might have been inspired by the action of Louis XIV on viewing his own equestrian portrait at Versailles in the 1680s. Rather than destroy the statue by Bernini, which he so disliked, he had it altered. In this way several of these monuments might still be in place in Dublin - with their protagonists reincarnated, perhaps in the guise of ancient heroes.

Paula Murphy is lecturer in the history of art, University College Dublin.

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