HORATIO NELSON DID not die for Ireland, yet in his own strange way he may have saved a few Irish lives.
During the course of the Easter Rising, the doorway of his imposing Doric column in the centre of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) offered a welcome respite for rebels dashing from one side of the street to the other.
Seán MacEntee, a Volunteer in the General Post Office, remembered watching two young rebels run the gauntlet, as “on the brave fellows came, their heads bent down, sprinting along a zig-zag course to mar the enemy’s aim. Into the cover of the Nelson Pillar they ran, and out of it again, upon the second half of their journey”.
Still, Nelson’s service during Easter Week counted for little on 8 March 1966, when a republican bomb brought the Admiral crashing down into the street he had overlooked with his one good eye since 1809.
Air of inevitability
There was an air of inevitability about Horatio Nelson’s eventual demise; King William of Orange, King George II and Viscount Gough in the Phoenix Park had all fallen victim to republican bombings, while Queen Victoria had been rather unceremoniously dumped from her vantage point in Leinster House, removed on her back through the front gates.
There appeared to be no place in the new Dublin for imperial relics, though Nelson lasted longer than most. Given that Irish republicans had spent the late eighteenth century looking to Napoleon and not Nelson, the hostility towards the pillar from certain quarters was not surprising.
The Irish Monthly, a contemporary nationalist newspaper, joked at the time the statue of Horatio Nelson on top of the Pillar was unveiled that “we never remember an exhibition that has excited less notice, or was marked with more indifference on the part of the Irish public, or at least that part that pay the taxes and enjoy none of the plunder”.
To Unionists however, it was a rallying point for commemoration. On Trafalgar Day, marking the victory of Horatio Nelson over the French and Spanish fleet, it was frequently illuminated and decorated. In 1863, to celebrate a Royal wedding, fireworks were set off from its viewing platform, a sight that was to be replicated during several Royal visits to the city.
Nationalists took any opportunity possible to interfere with the monument, and the first anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1917 witnessed the raising of what newspapers described as a “Sinn Féin flag” from its viewing platform.
The key to Nelson’s survival (and no doubt the longevity of the Duke of Wellington’s testimonial in the Phoenix Park) was the sheer scale of the monument.
Constructed of Wicklow granite and back limestone, it was sturdier and more resilient than the equestrian statues destroyed with relative ease in the decades that followed independence.
Still, there were attempts on Nelson. In the 1930s, IRA man Peadar O’Flaherty had toyed with the idea of utilising gelignite to collapse the pillar, while maverick republicans in the 1950s occupied the viewing platform of the monument with flame guns and other tools they believed could be used to destroy the statue of Nelson. Under the guise of protesting students, a banner of Kevin Barry was hung from the viewing platform on that occasion, as a crowd of thousands cheered from below.
Nelson withstood all planned attacks, and even withstood the bureaucracy of Dublin Corporation, who entertained ludicrous ideas and proposals that included removing the Pillar and re-erecting it elsewhere. In 1925 Howth Urban District Council expressed an interest in acquiring the Pillar, should it be dismantled, and re-erecting it on the Hill of Howth.
Others proposed leaving the Doric column but replacing the man on top, with the Virgin Mary, Jim Larkin, Robert Emmet and even John F. Kennedy proposed at different times.
A strong folklore and mythology has grown up around the bombing of the monument, one which mis-attributes the blame and which also pokes fun at the expense of the Irish Army, claiming that the controlled demolition that occurred a week after the first blast was responsible for significantly more damage to the streetscape than the republican bomb of 8 March.
While song and story tells us the pillar was bombed by the IRA, the action was the work of a small left-wing republican faction which had emerged from the IRA, but which operated separately from it and was not under its control. The IRA moved to distance itself from the bombing, with a statement from the ‘Republican Movement’ claiming that their movement was concerned not with the destruction of the symbols of imperialism, but imperialism itself.
In reality, the bombing of the controversial Pillar was planned and carried out by a network of young republican activists built around the charismatic republican Joseph Christle. Described by one historian of the 1960s republican movement as a “maverick”, Christle lived a colourful life in many fields, and as a keen cyclist was a central force behind the Rás Tailteann competition, a racing fixture once dedicated to the memory of James Connolly and Vladimir Lenin.
Many of those who followed Christle from the IRA were veterans of the Border Campaign of the 1950s, and one such activist was Liam Sutcliffe, who told the story of planting the explosive device that brought down Nelson for the first time in 2000.
Sutcliffe, who is still with us in this Golden Jubilee year, recalled that the operation to bring down Nelson was codenamed Operation Humpty Dumpty, and that the first planted device had failed to explode, leading to him carefully removing it from the Pillar before returning on the night of 7 March 1966.
Sutcliffe insists that a combination of gelignite and ammonal was used to destroy the Pillar, though not a man to watch his own work unfold, he returned home and was asleep at the time of the successful explosion, hearing of its success in the pages of the national media.
Nelson dominated the headlines in Ireland for the next few weeks, in a way he hadn’t since his death at Trafalgar.
When students from the National College of Art and Design liberated Horatio’s head from a Corporation lock-up, they forced the authorities on a wild-goose chase. Nelson’s head appeared in the window of a London antique shop, on stage with The Dubliners and even on Killiney Beach during a photo-shoot for women’s clothing. Later recovered, it sits in the Gilbert Library on Pearse Street today.
Maybe the greatest of the stories to grow out of the bombing of the Pillar though concerns the controlled demolition of a week later, an event that led some to joke that explosives should be left in the hands of the professionals.
On 15 March 1966, huge crowds gathered in Dublin city centre for this event, with a carnival atmosphere as thousands were kept behind Garda cordons.
Promised a “dull thud”, Dubliners responded with a resounding cheer to the second explosion, the sound of which surpassed all expectations. While the army didn’t quite succeed in breaking every window on O’Connell Street, a few were broken, though the damage claims from the second explosion were ultimately less than a quarter of those from the initial blast.
Perhaps, to their own misfortune, the jokes around that event were written before the army set foot on the street.
This article was originally published on 8 March 2016.
Donal Fallon is the author of ‘The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar’ and one of the writers behind the ‘Come Here To Me’ blog. He will be speaking at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the pillar’s destruction at the Dublin City Library & Archive on Pearse Street at 11am this morning.