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Dublin City Council confirms Shelbourne hotel statues to be reinstated

Historian Kyle Leyden has argued that there are “definite issues” with the statues – even if they are not depicting slaves.

The empty plinths outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.
The empty plinths outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.
Image: RollingNews.ie

THE FOUR STATUES that had been removed from outside the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin city centre are to be reinstated, Dublin City Council confirmed.

The story was first reported by the Irish Times this morning.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Council said that a submission was received from the owner’s architectural advisors yesterday, indicating “their intent to refurbish the statues and reinstate them in due course”.

This will take time due to the “delicate” conservation works required, the statement added.

The four bronze statues – which were commonly understood to depict two Egyptian princesses and two Nubian slaves holding torches – were removed from outside the historic hotel on 27 July as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum around the world.

But historian Kyle Leyden had since argued that based on his research looking at the trade catalogues the statues were ordered from, the statues were not intended to represent slaves.

The lecturer in the history of art and architecture at the University of London said that manacles on the ankles of the statues were probably meant to be bangles, and that all four statues are wearing these bangles.

An ‘Egyptomania’ had been sweeping Europe in the early 19th Century, and these statues were ordered as part of that movement, Leyden added.

He told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today: “The main attractions of Egypt to these people were really references to luxury and wealth.

“Obviously it was extremely useful when you’re building a new hotel to refer to the luxury and wealth of the patrons and what you might expect when you actually visit the hotel.

And that certainly would refer more to being representations of aristocratic Egyptian and Sub-Saharan African women rather than slaves.

The first reference to the statues as being slaves came from a ‘novelesque’ depiction of the hotel: The Shelbourne by Elizabeth Bowen written in 1951.

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Dublin City Council said that it was investigating the removal of the statues for potential breaches of rules around listed buildings. The removal also sparked concerns among the Irish Georgian Society, which had said it wasn’t consulted. 

Leyden also argued that there are three “definite issues” with the statues, even if they are not depicting slaves: 

Firstly, there can be no doubt that they formed part of what became a 19th Century artistic fetishisation of the culture of the East as licentious and sexualised.
Secondly, regardless of how true the slave identification actually was, the fact that there’s clearly a very widely held misconception that they might have been slaves might in itself be enough to justify a call for their removal.
And finally, it’s not really my place as a white man to comment on the impact these statues might have on a woman or a person of colour who views them today. But such impact of course may itself again, be a reason for their removal.

Leyden said that while accepting their problematic nature, says they form part of the only 19th Century hotel on this scale in Ireland, and their removal would have been disproportionate in his view. Instead, he suggested placing a plaque explaining the context or handing out leaflets.

Responding to a quote from Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, who said “one person’s anklet is another person’s manacle”, Leyden said:

By the same token, it’s just as true that one person’s problematic representation of African women can – when properly contextualised with a leaflet or with a label on the statue - be a potent reminder the two of the world’s most ancient civilisations, which is far outstrips anything formed in Europe in antiquity, longevity, and cultural outcomes – were formed in Africa.

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“And their glories and the glories of Africa were still being celebrated in 1867,” he said.

The Shelbourne hotel has been contacted for comment.

- with reporting from Cónal Thomas

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