Construction of Nelson Pillar, a large granite pillar topped by a statue of Horatio Nelson in the middle of O’Connell Street (formerly Sackville Street) in Dublin, begins with the laying of the foundation stone on February 15, 1808 by the Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Richmond.
News of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar reaches Dublin on November 8, 1805 and is greeted with boisterous celebrations in the streets, alongside mourning for the death of the hero. Within a month the Lord Mayor of Dublin, James Vance, calls a meeting of nobility, clergy, bankers, merchants, and citizens to plan a monument in Nelson’s memory, which is to be funded by public subscription.
The Duke, dressed in a General’s uniform and accompanied by the Duchess in deep mourning for the dead hero, arrive at the foundation stone laying in a state coach drawn by six horses. The procession from Dublin Castle to the site includes Horse Yeomanry and Foot Yeomanry, sailors, officers of the Army and the Navy, subscribers, the committee, the Provost and Fellows of Trinity College, the Lord Mayor, the Common Council, sheriffs, aldermen, and peers according to their degrees.
The pillar is a Doric column that rises 121 feet from the ground and is topped by a 13-foot tall statue of Nelson carved in Portland stone, giving it a total height of 134 feet, some 35 feet shorter than Nelson’s Column in London. The diameter of the column is 13 feet at the bottom and 10 feet at the top. All of the outer and visible parts of the pillar are granite from the quarry of Goldenhill, Manor Kilbride, County Wicklow. The interior is black limestone.
The pillar is completed by August 1809 and the statue of Nelson is hoisted into place. The statue is the work of Thomas Kirk, a young Cork-born sculptor then at the beginning of a successful career. The statue adds £630 to the cost of the pillar, which totals almost £7,000.
The monument is opened to the public on Trafalgar Day, October 21, 1809, the fourth anniversary of the battle. It offers the citizens of Dublin an unprecedented perspective on their city. For the payment of ten pence, they can climb the 168 steps of the inner stone staircase to the viewing platform.
On October 29, 1955, a group of University College Dublin students lock themselves inside the pillar and try to melt the statue with flame throwers. From the top they hang a poster of Kevin Barry, a Dublin Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer who is executed by the British during the Irish War of Independence. Gardaí force their way inside with sledgehammers. They take the students’ names and addresses and bring them downstairs. Rather than arrest the students, the Gardaí merely confiscate their equipment and tell everyone to leave quietly. None are ever charged.
At 1:32 AM on March 8, 1966, a bomb destroys the upper half of the pillar, throwing the statue of Nelson into the street. The bomb is planted by a group of former Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers in what is believed to mark the commemoration the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
Six days after the original damage, on the morning of Monday, March 14, 1966, Irish Army engineers blow up the rest of the pillar after judging the structure to be too unsafe to restore. This planned demolition causes more damage on O’Connell Street than the original blast, breaking many windows.
The rubble from the monument is taken to the East Wall dump and the lettering from the plinth is moved to the gardens of Butler House, Kilkenny.