By Edward T. O’Donnell
Thirty-five years ago this week, on March 8, 1966, the IRA blew up Nelson’s Pillar outside the Dublin Post Office on O’Connell Street. At 134 feet, Nelson’s Pillar was no ordinary monument. It was erected in 1808 in honor of Horatio Nelson, the British naval hero in the Battle of Trafalgar. It featured a massive Doric column of 121 feet, topped by a 13-foot statue of Nelson by Cork-born sculptor Thomas Kirk.
Ostensibly built to honor Nelson, the pillar also had more obvious purpose. Only 10 years earlier, the United Irishmen had staged a rebellion to gain Ireland’s independence. London responded to the challenge both militarily and politically. First, the rebellion was crushed by militarily force. Second, Parliament passed the Act of Union establishing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (it took effect Jan. 1, 1801) which abolished Ireland’s parliament and granted Ireland representation in Westminster. Built only a few years later, Nelson’s Pillar was designed to loom over Dublin — indeed over all Ireland — as a symbol of British imperial and military might.
And loom it did for more than a century and a half of nationalist struggle against British rule. Nelson stood tall through the Famine, the Young Ireland and Fenian uprisings, and Parnell’s crusade for Home Rule. He escaped unscathed during the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War.
It seems strange, then, that this overt symbol of British colonial power would have been blown up at a time of relative peace. In 1962, citing the apathy of the people, the IRA called off its Border Campaign (1956-1962). By 1966, the IRA’s membership and influence had withered, leaving it, in the words of Pete Hamill, "reduced to a Marxist debating club." In 1965 relations between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland had thawed to the point that Taoiseach Sean Lemass and his counterpart in the North, Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, staged high-profile visits to each other’s section of Ireland in 1965.
Perhaps because the IRA was at such a low point — and certainly because 1966 was the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising — its leaders decided to stage a bold and symbolic act. It only required a little imagination, some planning, and a few pounds of explosives.
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The bomb went off shortly after 2 a.m. It shattered the column in two, sending the statue of Nelson crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. No one was seriously hurt and no arrests were made.
There was never any talk of rebuilding the monument. Instead, acting with uncharacteristic speed, the city tore down the portion of the column left standing, carted away the shards of marble, and paved over the hole. Having towered over Dublin for 158 years, it took less than two weeks for Nelson’s Pillar to disappear. Well, not entirely — the statue’s head was found amidst the rubble and turned over to the Dublin Civic Museum, where it remains on display to this day.
The bombing earned the IRA a massive burst of publicity, but little more. Although it occurred on the eve of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the bombing did not signal a revival of the IRA. That would come in 1969-1970 as the Civil Rights movement in the North precipitated a violent Unionist response and British military intervention.
The story of Nelson’s Pillar did not end with its destruction in 1966. Although few people mourned the monument’s destruction, the blank spot on O’Connell Street seemed to cry out for something to replace it. In the mid-1990s Dublin officials announced plans to renovate that section of O’Connell Street and build a new sculpture on the site.
Sculptor Ian Ritchie’s "Millennium Spire" won the design competition in 1998. Keenly aware of the history associated with the site, he chose a fitting replacement for Nelson’s Pillar — a massive (360-foot tall) steel needle. Although some critics deride the ultra modern work as the "Stiletto in the Ghetto," its message is unequivocally positive and forward-looking. As Ritchie himself explained to the BBC, "Here was an opportunity to, in a sense, reverse the history of monuments. . . . I saw an opportunity to talk about optimism through design. And it’s an optimism of the Irish people."
The project, originally intended for completion in time for the 2000 millennium celebration, moves ahead despite encountering several delays. When completed, it will stand as a powerful reminder that despite its troubled past — a past symbolized by Nelson’s Pillar – Ireland has a future full of promise.
Postscript: Interested in reading more about the Millennium Spire and seeing what it will look like? Go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/knowledge/arts/breaks/dublin/architecture2.shtml.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
March 9, 1932: After a long political exile, Eamon De Valera is elected President of Ireland.
March 10, 1938: Leo McCarey (Best Director for "The Awful Truth"), Spencer Tracy (Best Actor in "Captains Courageous"), and Alice Brady (Best Supporting Actress in "In Old Chicago") win Oscars at the 10th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
March 11, 1951: Hardline Unionist Rev. Ian Paisley establishes his Free Presbyterian Church.
March 10, 1888: Actor Barry Fitzgerald born in Dublin
March 11, 1858: Nationalist Thomas J. Clarke born in Hurst Castle, Isle of Wright
March 12, 1832: Irish land agent Captain Boycott born in Norfolk, England
March 13, 1913: Spymaster William Casey born in Queens, N.Y.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.