THE RECENT EVENTS in Charlottesville in the United States showed how history can still spark conflict in the present.
The touchstone for the white supremacist protest and the subsequent killing of a counter-protester was the removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E Lee in the state of Virginia.
The removal of the statue is one of many that is happening across the United States and is a reminder that such statues, even those in place for a century, have a controversial history.
In Dublin, one statue that has become the focus of a similar debate about whether to commemorate controversial figures is that of Seán Russell.
Since it was first placed in Fairview Park in Dublin in 1951, the statue has variously been decapitated, vandalised and even replaced – but it remains there today.
Russell was an Irish republican who fought in the 1916 Rising and was a leader during the War of Independence. He opposed the treaty and became chief of staff of the IRA in the early years of Free State Ireland.
His legacy is also very controversial, in large part because of his death.
Russell died in 1940 on a German u-boat after travelling to Nazi Germany in an effort to secure support for the IRA’s efforts to overthrow the Free State and reunite Ireland north and south.
His supporters say that he had no interest in Nazi ideology and that his discussions with Germany were simply a case of “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.
Objectors to the statue say that it matters little what his motivations were, the company he kept is enough to disqualify him from any kind of honour.
The u-boat is believed to be en route back to Ireland and those opposed to the Russell statue say it equates to Nazi collaboration.
The company Russell kept is certainly noteworthy.
Edmund Veesenmayer of the SS was entrusted with meeting Irish seditions and there is evidence to suggest he met with Russell in Berlin in 1940. Veesenmayer went on to be convicted as a war criminal for his role in the Holocaust in eastern Europe from 1944 onwards.
However, as Dublin cultural blog Come Here To Me! points out, Russell’s dealings in Germany and his death came before the Wansee Conference which proposed the Nazi “Final Solution”.
Dublin historian Brian Hanley has written extensively about Russell and describes him first and foremost as “a militarist” who cared more about fighting the British in Ireland than European politics.
“He was a militarist in a lot of ways and that’s not pejorative necessarily,” Hanley argues.
He wasn’t that interested in political debate. As far as he was concerned the IRA was there to drive the British out of Ireland. In the 1930s the IRA would have seen the Free State as a puppet.
Hanley says that in his view Russell cannot be viewed as a Nazi collaborator as he did little to aid their cause but sought to take their help. He also previously sought to take help from the Soviet Union.
Source: James Horan
“Russell wanted the Germans to help the IRA and in real terms he died hoping to have some cooperation with them. But it’s not in any way comparable to collaborators in Europe who had direct involvement in atrocities,” Hanley says.
In the 1920s the IRA were looking for support from Communist Russia and he was happy with that, give us guns and give us money and in the 1940s he was happy to look to Nazi Germany for support and I don’t think he cared that much. Now that might be just as bad, if you don’t care at all. But I don’t think he had any truck with Nazi ideology.
Russell’s statue was first unveiled in the north Dublin park in 1951 after a march involving about 5,000 people and a ceremony that was attended by Brendan Behan among others.
The Come Here To Me! blog says that the statue was first vandalised a year after it was erected with some feeling that the pose was seen to be a Communist one.
The statue was replaced with a different design in 1965 and it was attacked numerous times until 2004 when the head of the statue was removed.
It was replaced with the current bronze statue in 2009 which has also been attacked with red paint and daubed with a swastika.
The self-described “anti-nazi” group that decapitated the statue in 2005 said that Russell was a “nationalist fanatic” whose quest to unify Ireland was done “at the point of the bayonets of the Gestapo”.
The statue is located on the south-western end of Fairview Park in Dublin alongside Annesley Bridge Road.