Essential Architecture-  Ireland

Nelson's Pillar


Francis Johnson (1760-1829)


Ireland > County Cork > Dublin on O'Connell Street






large granite pillar


  Nelson's Pillar after being destroyed
  The burnt out shell of the Dublin GPO - General Post Office on Sackville Street - now O'Connell St & ruins of the Metropole Hotel in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, Nelson's Pillar is visible to the right.
  What is the story behind this picture?

A new monument has recently been erected on the site where Nelson's Pillar formerly stood in Dublin, Ireland.
However it bears no resemblance to the original column, which was built by the British to commemorate Horatio Nelson.
Nelson was the admiral who led the defeat of the French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but died in the battle. The Dublin pillar had features in common with the well-known Nelson's Column, which stands in Trafalgar Square in London.
When the Irish Free State was formed in the south of Ireland in the 1920s, they left Nelson's Pillar in place, despite its associations with the earlier period of British rule.
However, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which aimed to create a united Ireland, eventually took direct action to destroy Nelson's Pillar. An explosion on 8th March 1966, 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, destroyed the column, and no official effort was made to replace it.

Here is another picture of the pillar, following the explosion of 8th March 1966.
This appears to show an early stage in the demolition of the remains, prior to the final stage shown in the photo above which shows only the base of the pillar.

The Nelson Pillar, known generally but incorrectly in Dublin as Nelson's Pillar, was a controversial large granite pillar topped by a statue of Horatio, Lord Nelson, located in the centre of O'Connell Street in Dublin. It was erected in 1808 upon the instructions of the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Richmond, to honour Admiral Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, three years after his death, and before the similar Nelson's Column was erected in London in 1849. The pillar became both a tram terminus and a common meeting place for Dubliners and offered the city's best public viewing platform, reached by spiral stairway inside the column. It was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1966.

The pillar was a Doric column that rose 121 ft (36.8 m) from the ground and was topped by a 13 ft (3.9 m) tall statue in Portland stone by Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk, RHA (1781-1845), giving it a total height of 134 ft (40.8 m) – some 20 metres shorter than the more famous Nelson's Column in London. It was designed by Francis Johnson (1760-1829), the architect who built the General Post Office (to the left of the picture opposite). 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 G. P. Baxter designed a porch in 1894 which was added to allow direct access from the street.

 Destruction of the Pillar
Nelson's Pillar had from the outset been very unpopular. Dublin City Council had originally rejected it but were overruled by the Duke of Richmond, the British Lord Lieutenant, in 1808. A writer on Dublin's history in 1909, Dillon Cosgrave, acknowledged the temporary nature of the Pillar's existence, 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'.[1] Numerous attempts were made subsequently to have it removed, including by An Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, in 1960.[2] At 2am on March 8, 1966, a group of former IRA men, including Joe Christle[3], gave definite shape to this opposition by planting 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 flung around the vicinity. 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. As a relic of Ireland's colonial past, the statue was a painful reminder to many. Plans for its removal by Dublin Corporation were made and subsequently dropped several times. Others plans, also not implemented, saw proposals to replace Nelson at the top of the Pillar by other statues: among those suggested at various times for the Pillar were the Sacred Heart, Patrick Pearse, Saint Patrick and John F. Kennedy.

No one was hurt by the IRA explosion. The closest bystander was 19-year-old taxi driver, Steve Maughan, whose taxi was destroyed. O'Connell Street enjoyed a cheery atmosphere for a few days as people crowded in to appreciate the novelty that was being referred to around town as 'The Stump'.[citation needed]

Two days after the original damage, Irish Army engineers blew up the rest of the pillar after judging the vestigial structure to be too unsafe to restore. The explosion by these 'experts' caused more destruction on O'Connell Street than the original blast, breaking many windows and causing painfully-amused Dubliners to roll their eyes and joke about how the authorities "should have got the original boys back to finish the job" ![citation needed]

Within a matter of days, 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 music song to the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic which maintained the Number 1 spot for 8 consecutive weeks.

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[4] 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 is now in the Civic Museum in Dublin.

The Nelson's 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. In 2001, whilst the site was being excavated to prepare for the foundations of the spire, The Irish Times[5] announced the discovery of a 200 year old time capsule. This, in fact, turned out to be a dedication plaque[6] commemorating Nelson's achievements.

On 23 April 2000, Liam Sutcliffe, 67, from the suburb of Walkinstown, claimed[7] 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 the August. Then, on the morning of September 21st, 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 Gardai prepared a file for review by the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide if the matter should be pursued further. However, many people continued to demand the prosecution of those responsible for the destruction.

The identity of the bombers has been a source of speculation and conflicting claims of responsibility, much like the empty boasts of many older Dubliners that they were in the GPO during the Easter Rising in 1916. One republican source even asserted that the operation enjoyed the help of a Basque explosives expert, owing to an alleged lack of expertise amongst the conspirators[citation needed].

 Songs about the fall of Nelson's Pillar
"Up Went Nelson" by The Go Lucky Four
"Lord Nelson" by Tommy Makem
"Nelson's Farewell" by Joe Dolan - Released as a track by The Dubliners on their album Finnegan Wakes in 1966.

? 'The Centre of the North City' North Dublin (1909) Cosgrave, Dillon
? Lemass tried to topple Nelson in favour of Saint
? Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA by Richard English, Oxford University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-19-516605-1
? The Irish Independent, March 11, 2003
? The Irish Times October 4, 2001
? Margaret Gowen & Co Ltd. Dedication Plaque
? The Irish Independent, September 22, 2000
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