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The long road to the Spire: Here's why it took 37 years to replace Nelson's Pillar

A mooted ‘Millennium Arch’ fell by the wayside, and there were many other proposals along the way.

THE BOMBING OF the Nelson Pillar on 8 March 1966 transformed the streetscape of Dublin forever, leaving a gaping hole in the centre of O’Connell Street where a foreign Admiral had watched events unfold since 1809. In the Seanad, Senator Owen Dudley Edwards lamented the fact that he “as a Dubliner, felt a sense of loss, not because of Nelson – one could hardly see Nelson at the top – but because this pillar symbolised for many Dubliners the centre of the city”.

Though the Pillar itself was gone, buses continued to advertise themselves as travelling to ‘Nelson’s Pillar’ in the centre of the city, perhaps clinging to the name in the hope something would, sooner rather than later, find a home where the monument had stood. Yet if Nelson was controversial, all proposals for replacing the monument proved likewise. Some suggested rebuilding the Doric column, others called for something radically different. It wasn’t until 2003, with the unveiling of Ian Ritchie’s ‘Monument of Light’ that the debate was put to bed.

nli The aftermath of the bombing of Nelson's Pillar in 1966. Source: National Library of Ireland

With the centenary of the birth of Patrick Pearse in the 1970s, proposals for a monument to the 1916 leader on the site once occupied by the Pillar flooded in. The architect Yann Goulet brought forward a proposal for a monument that would contain over £150,000 worth of bronze, and which would stand taller than the neighbouring General Post Office, but Goulet’s larger than life tribute to Pearse was so controversial that Councillor Frank Sherwin raged “it should be thrown in the Liffey”, while another elected official described it as “the yoke”, refusing to even entertain the idea.

Dublin’s so-called millennium year of 1988 produced more than just commemorative milk bottles and Viking memorabilia. Architects, planners and artists argued that the year of reflection on Dublin’s past presented an opportune moment to re-examine the Nelson Pillar site. The Pillar Project, intended as a generator of ideas, brought artists and architects together, with suggestions for the site exhibited in the General Post Office and discussed on the Late Late Show. Some of the entries were heavily influenced by the Pillar. Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, for example, proposed a piece of public art that would rise to an even greater height than the pillar, but which would contain a public telescope at Nelson’s eye-level.

One entry, which was ahead of its time, was the ‘Millennium Arch’, a dream of architect Michael Kinsella and artist Daniel McCarthy, to construct an arch not unlike the Arc de Triomphe, topped by a sculpture of an eternal flame, “symbolic of a city where the spirit is never extinguished, despite the passing of time.” The Pillar Project was never intended to be a binding or definitive competition, and while Dubliners supported the idea of the Millennium Arch over all other suggestions, it wasn’t to be.

New ideas 

As the decline of O’Connell Street continued apace, new proposals for the centre of the street continued to emerge throughout the early 1990s. The architect Thomas Murphy argued in 1993 that the street “has been identified in the public mind as being both dirty and dangerous”, though his ambitious ‘Tower of Light’ was not to be. The Progressive Democrats argued for a reconstructed Pillar with James Joyce upon it, as he was felt to be a “non-political, non-military, non-sectarian, and non-divisive” figure. Joyce would have enjoyed the proposal, having included the original Pillar in his epic 1922 novel Ulysses, even joking of Nelson as “the one-handled adulterer”.

Eventually, progress seemed to be on the cards. An international competition launched in 1998 received huge media attention, both at home and abroad. This competition, unlike the Pillar Project a decade earlier, would see its winning entry constructed on the site. The brief of those who entered the competition was clear: “The monument hall have a vertical emphasis, an elegant structure of 21st century contemporary design which shall relate to the quality and scale of O’Connell Street as represented by the late 18th and early 20th century architecture”.

The competition received an impressive 205 entries, which was narrowed down to three architectural firms. Of these, two were British-based, while one was a Dublin firm. Frank
McDonald, the longstanding campaigner for the regeneration of the city and journalist with The Irish Times, praised the winning design from London architect Ian Ritchie in glowing terms, insisting that “this sensational structure will redefine the city centre and people’s perceptions of where that is, quite apart from providing Dublin with a new icon”.

The Dublin Spire Source: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

Not everyone loved the Spire. Among its most vocal critics was Mícheál Ó Núalláin, the brother of a certain Myles na gCopaleen, or Flann O’Brien. He launched a court action to
attempt to halt the planned project, and, blessed with the wit of his late brother, he made it clear that he believed the monument would reduce O’Connell Street to “an absurd Lilliputian dimension.” He toyed with the idea of running for the Dáil as a ‘Stop the Spike’ candidate, but in the end even an Ó Núalláin couldn’t stop the Spire’s ascent.

Ian Ritchie’s monument, which it was originally believed would be in place in 2000, was eventually completely in place by January 2003. It had gone up in six sections, and on 22
January 2003, thousands applauded as the final part of the work was put in place. One man who watched events from street level was Liam Sutcliffe, the only man to publicly associate himself with the 1966 bombing of the Pillar. Having played no small role in transforming the streetscape of Dublin himself, he told journalists he welcomed the new addition to O’Connell Street, on the basis that it was a “better thing to have on the main street than an old foreign admiral”. If there was an irony in the events of 2003, it is perhaps that Nelson’s Pillar was the work of Dublin-based architect Francis Johnston, while its replacement was designed by a Ian Ritchie’s London-based firm.

Perhaps the imperial monument which fell in 1966 could be said to be more Irish than its replacement!

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.

Read: 50 years later and the Nelson’s Pillar bomber says he has no regrets

Read: On this day in 1966 Nelson’s Pillar in O’Connell Street was blown up

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