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'Statues don't embody history': The debate around Ireland's public monuments after Colston

Dr Ebun Joseph says it’s time to move the conversation away from “dead white men”.

Statue of dictator Alfredo Stroessner
Statue of dictator Alfredo Stroessner
Image: Twitter.com

THE TOPPLING OF slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last Sunday has renewed debate worldwide as to how, and who, we commemorate. 

The symbolism behind Colston’s trip from his plinth to a plunge into Bristol Harbour, spurred by Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, goes beyond iconoclasm. 

Colston made his fortune through the slave trade in Africa, Bristol Harbour the location where many slave trade ships once moored. 

Some argue this was ‘cultural vandalism’. Others say the toppling of a bronze effigy to a notorious slave trader is history itself. 

In recent days, city’s like Boston, Hamilton and London have seen statues to colonial figures like explorer Christopher Columbus torn down or relocated. 

With calls this week to remove a memorial to Columbus near Galway’s Spanish Arch, the debate has reached Ireland. 

The question now for public art officials and historians is how best to acknowledge past injustices. As Black Lives Matter continues to dominate headlines, Ireland’s public memorials could come under scrutiny. 

‘This Is Too Emotive’ 

The first thing to consider, says Dublin’s Public Art Manager and curator Ruairí Ó Cuív, is why statues to Colston in Bristol and Columbus in Boston were torn down. 

“Obviously they symbolise very live issues for a huge portion of our [global] population,” he says.  “I absolutely empathise with anybody finding a statue in Bristol of [Edward Colston] deeply offensive.”

Ireland is not without its own controversial memorials, says Ó Cuív.

Along with Galway’s Columbus memorial, calls have grown in Newry to remove a statue to pro-slavery advocate John Mitchell. In Dublin’s Fairview Park, a statue to former IRA Chief Sean Russell, who died aboard a German U-Boat in 1940, is once more front and centre of the public memorial debate. 

black-lives-matter-protests Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. Source: Ben Birchall/PA Images

The question is how do we address historical injustice when it is embodied by a public monument? And do we need these monuments at all? 

“A sensible way is to say ‘This is too emotive, let’s move it into storage’,” says Ó Cuív. “I think we have our own example of this here.”

Ó Cuív is referring to John Henry Foley’s statue of Prince Albert, located between the Natural History Museum and the Department of the Taoiseach on Merrion Street, but tucked away from public view.  

Prince Albert is one of the few remaining major imperial monuments left in Ireland. A relatively benign figure, Albert nonetheless embodies the Victorian era, a period in which Britain colonised far and wide. 

With a growing sense that we need to address the legacy of our monuments, more controversial memorials in Ireland will likely come to light. 

Before Columbus, there were calls to remove a plaque to Confederate soldier Richard Dowling in Tuam, Co Galway in 2017. 

Another example is La Touche Bridge (Portobello Bridge) at Dublin’s Grand Canal, named after William Digges La Touche, whose family in 1834 received “compensation” for 400 of their slaves following abolition. La Touche House in Dublin’s IFSC also bears the family name. 

Should these now be renamed? Could they end up defaced or damaged like Colston?

After all, Ireland’s way of previously dealing with controversial monuments was dynamite. 

In May 1937, the statue commemorating King George II, which had been erected in 1758, was destroyed by an explosion.

In 1946, an equestrian monument to King William of Orange, erected in 1701, was destroyed after another explosion.

Two of John Henry Foley’s statues were also destroyed. 

In 1958, Foley’s statue from 1870 depicting George William Frederick Howard, Seventh Earl of Carlisle, was blown off its pedestal in the Phoenix Park.

Foley’s equestrian monument to Lord Gough dating back to 1880, was badly damaged in another explosion. It was then placed in storage. It now sits in Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, having been purchased from the state in 1986.

download (2) Sean Russell statue in Dublin's Fairview Park. Source: Flickr/WilliamMurphy

In 1966, Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street was blown up, ending Horatio’s tenure on Dublin’s main thoroughfare. In seeking to rid Ireland of imperial symbolism, public monuments were obliterated. But is that a sound approach? 

“I might be in a minority here but I don’t see a huge benefit to destroying artworks, good bad or indifferent. But I do see the benefit of being sensitive,” says Ó’Cuiv. 

“This comes back to contextualisation. Put it into a museum where it’s part of the roots, the history and origins of a people. We can’t deny these awful things happened. As much as we try to erase it we’re not going to change the past.”

Nelson’s head, at least, is now kept at Pearse St. Library in Dublin. 

‘An Education’ 

“On Monday the empty base, surrounded by Black Lives Matter placards, drew a stream of activists, office workers and onlookers,” the Washington Post reported from Bristol this week.

“Some posed proudly in front of it, others stood in silence, a few argued. Some Bristolians said toppling the statue was historical vandalism. Others welcomed the removal of a stain on their city.”

Following Colston’s plunge into Bristol Harbour, the focus on public monuments abroad has since shifted to London and Oxford where a statue of Cecil Rhodes stands at Oriel College. 

Rhodes, a businessman, imperialist and politician, made his fortune in diamond mining in South Africa and, as Irish academic Emma Dabiri noted in 2019, “became so powerful that Rhodesia was named after him.”

This week, the Chancellor of Oxford University Lord Patten said it was hypocritical of people to call for the removal of Rhodes considering the university takes in 100 students a year as part of the Rhodes Scholarship, established by Cecil Rhodes as part of his will in 1902. 

On BBC’s The One Show, Dabiri studied a copy of that will with Oxford graduate Femi Nylander who pointed out that Clause 16 of Rhodes’ will states that one of the “great advantages” of the programme of education of young Colonists is for “instilling in their minds the advantage to the Colonies as well as to the United Kingdom of the retention of the unity of the Empire.”

“So it’s very clear in his will that this scholarship is there to help set up young, white men to be colonists, to educate these people in subduing people of colour,” said Nylander. “Anyone who knows how Rhodes built his wealth knows that he built it on the bodies of black miners.”

Dr Ebun Joseph, Co-ordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland, says the removal of a public monument to a controversial figure like Rhodes should not be dependent on whatever supposed good deeds they achieved in their lifetime. 

Dr Joseph says that too often those making decisions around public monuments are not directly affected by what they symbolise.  

“We cannot now celebrate somebody who has obviously committed a crime no matter how good somebody was or what they contributed,” says Dr Joseph. 

“We know all of that. We can put that down to history…but should we put them out there and celebrate them? They shouldn’t be our heroes.”

‘Case-By-Case’

Colston’s removal and the debate surrounding public statues to supposed ‘great men’ this week has – at least online – resulted in a renewed appreciation for how nations deal with their past, and how they reassess commemoration.  

Many will have seen images of a statue in Sweden commemorating the moment housewife Danuta Danielsson whacked Neo-Nazi Seppo Seluska over the head with her handbag in April 1985. 

h28tfgpuy5451 Danuta Danielsson

Twitter has been flooded with images of former Soviet statues, many of which were torn down after the fall of the USSR, an iconoclastic practice dating back to Ancient Rome. 

People, too, have hailed the Paraguayan response to a massive steel statue of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who was overthrown in 1989, in the capital Asunción. 

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As Paraguayans debated what should become of this monument – remain or destroyed – artist Carlos Colombino used bits of the original statue and sandwiched it between two concrete blocks, Stroessner’s head crushed beneath the weight of his own memorial. 

DHXGARsXcAA-zlx Statue of dictator Alfredo Stroessner Source: Twitter.com

No More Statues?

In Ireland, the question for public art officials is how do we now address monuments to Prince Albert, Wellington in Dublin’s Phoenix Park or Dowling in Galway remaining in place?

For Ó’Cuív, it’s a matter of where do we stop if we go down that road. ”The renaming of streets in a city is not going to change the past,” he says. 

As part of his work with Dublin City Arts Office Ó’Cuív developed policy around commissioning and decommissioning public artworks, the first Local Authority in Ireland to do so. 

In the 10 years since the policy was published, no major issues around statues have arisen. 

This week, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan ordered a review of the city’s landmarks including street names, public buildings and plaques following Colston’s removal in Bristol. 

Already, the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan at West India Quay in London’s Docklands has been removed after the charity which owns the land where it stood promised to organise its “safe removal” following a petition.

Khan’s new Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm will also consider which legacies should be celebrated before making recommendations about new statues and which could be removed. 

The local council, Tower Hamlets, said it had removed the statue and had “also announced a review into monuments and other sites in our borough to understand how we should represent the more troubling periods in our history”.

Writing in the New Statesman on Wednesday Stephen Bush argued that it makes sense to “periodically refresh” a nation’s public art and statues on an agreed timeframe. 

“This is where the detail of Sadiq Khan’s commission into London’s statues makes a lot of sense – he’s not tasking his group with coming up with a list of statues to pull down, but instead to recommend names to be put up,” wrote Bush. 

For Ó’Cuív, controversial public artworks should be assessed on a case-by-case basis rather than a broad strokes review into all statues, street names or plaques. 

There remains, however, one key question, he says. Should we stop commemorating people altogether by way of public monument? 

“On a personal level, I’ve always questioned the value of statues in some respects,” he says. 

“Obviously I’m interested in the art…if someone has captured the essence of a person. But the other side of it is this veneration of a person, the issue of venerating one individual. I’ve always had questions around that.”

The second thing I have always had issues with is that no movement, no cultural movement, no political movement has…involved more than one individual.

“We need to study history but I don’t think statues embody that much history. They’re not telling the complexity of why something happened, who did it, all the people who were opposed,” says Ó’Cuív. 

Ireland’s more contentious monuments have not met the same fate as Edward Colston. That most remain relics of Colonial Britain means they’ve largely been disowned by an Irish Republic but stand as reminders of our past. 

Yet there are lessons for the future, says UCD’s Joseph. 

Public memorials in previous centuries were erected by people in power. A democratic process for commemoration should always be considered, she says. 

“It is the people who were in power who decided who to celebrate,” said Dr Joseph. “What if I want to celebrate my Grandmother who raised three children?”

It is time, she said, to move the conversation away from “dead white men”.  

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