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Charlottesville statue: 'Many monuments to British figures were destroyed or removed in Ireland too'

The blowing up of Nelson’s pillar, on O’Connell Street, in 1966 is the most acute example of the re-writing of the Irish landscape, writes Dr Richard Scriven.

Dr Richard Scriven Postdoctoral Fellow, UCC

THE DISPUTE OVER a statue of General Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, was central to the horrific scenes which subsequently unfolded in the past week. Meanwhile four Confederate monuments were removed in Baltimore by the City Council and protesters in Durham, North Carolina took down a statue themselves.

These actions reflect the political nature of monuments as symbols of ideologies and events. Their removal, lawful or otherwise, is also a political act.

The cultural landscape

Monuments are found in city parks, on roadsides, and capitals across the world. The statue of Lord Nelson towers over Trafalgar Square in London, the National Mall in Washington is shaped by its memorials, and every plaza in Rome seems to hold a stone figure. Statues and other monuments are prominent features of what is referred to as the cultural landscape, the collective character of an area’s natural, cultural, and political elements.

Through the erection of statues, communities and nations commemorate events, movements, and people in the landscape. In Ireland common examples are monuments to the 1798 Rebellion, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, more recently, memorials to cultural figures.

These physical markers are statements about the ideas and heritage which is most important for a society.

History is written and re-written in the pages of books

However, cultural landscapes are always open to interpretation and contestation. While there often is a consensus on the erection of a statue, it is nonetheless a political act.

These representations tell a story, but that story can be challenged and updated. This is the case in the US currently where Confederate statues are been called out as symbols of slavery and racism.

There is a comparable situation in Poland where Soviet era monuments now seen as representing the totalitarian regime are been removed, which has been met by Russian objections. We usually understand that history is written and re-written in the pages of books, but it also occurs in the landscape.

Irish history of monument building

The Irish history of monument building and destruction is primarily shaped by our relationship with Britain. From the eighteenth century statues to British figures were erected across Ireland as signifiers of British rule, a means of engraving it in the landscape.

These included Willam III on College Green in 1701 (removed in 1929), William II in the Boyne Valley in 1736 (destroyed 1922), and the Duke of Cumberland pillar, Birr in 1747 (statue removed in 1915). However, in the late nineteenth century an increasingly dominant Irish nationalist movement began to put up its own statues.

One of the most prominent was the 1882 Daniel O’Connell monument (on the then Sackville Street, renamed O’Connell Street post-independence) which asserted the position of this Irish Catholic political in the heart of the city.

Many monuments to British figures were destroyed or removed as they were seen as symbols of oppression. The blowing up of Nelson’s pillar, on O’Connell Street, in 1966 is the most acute example of the re-writing of the landscape.

A century earlier, in 1862, a statue of George II on the Grand Parade, Cork, was tumbled into the river, and later replaced by the Nationalist Monument. Also, a statue of Queen Victoria outside Leinster House was official moved in 1948, and since 1986 has stood in Sydney.

Representing ideas which no longer deserve prominence

The removal of these monuments was not to deny those aspects of history, but rather a statement that these symbols had come to represent ideas which no longer deserved such prominence. Although lawful removal or relocation is clearly more appropriate to destruction.

As societies change and understandings are refined, cultural landscapes are altered to better reflect these new positions. For Ireland this has meant an ongoing negotiation with our colonial past and the politics of independence. In the US, this process is happening at an accelerated rate within the political polarisation of the current climate, and it will continue.

Dr Richard Scriven is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography, UCC. Follow him on Twitter @CorkGeog.

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About the author:

Dr Richard Scriven  / Postdoctoral Fellow, UCC

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