seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

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The Bombing of Nelson’s Pillar

nelsons-pillar-bombingA powerful explosion destroys the upper portion of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in the early morning hours of March 8, 1966, bringing Nelson’s statue crashing to the ground amid hundreds of tons of rubble. All that is left of the Pillar is a 70-foot high jagged stump. The pillar is seen by many as an anachronistic monument to English occupation of Ireland, especially as 1966 is the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Nelson’s Pillar is a large granite column capped by a statue of Horatio Nelson, built in the centre of what is then Sackville Street (later renamed O’Connell Street) in Dublin. It is completed in 1809 when Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Its remnants are later destroyed by the Irish Army.

The decision to build the monument is taken by Dublin Corporation in the euphoria following Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The original design by William Wilkins is greatly modified by Francis Johnston, on grounds of cost. The statue is sculpted by Thomas Kirk. From its opening on October 29, 1809 the Pillar is a popular tourist attraction, but provokes aesthetic and political controversy from the outset. A prominent city centre monument honouring an Englishman rankles as Irish nationalist sentiment grows, and throughout the 19th century there are calls for it to be removed, or replaced with a memorial to an Irish hero.

During the Easter Rising in 1916 an attempt is made to blow up the pillar but the explosives fail to ignite due to dampness. It remains in the city as most of Ireland becomes the Irish Free State in 1922, and the Republic of Ireland in 1949. The chief legal barrier to its removal is the trust created at the Pillar’s inception, the terms of which gave the trustees a duty in perpetuity to preserve the monument. Successive Irish governments fail to deliver legislation overriding the trust. Although influential literary figures such as James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and Oliver St. John Gogarty defend the Pillar on historical and cultural grounds, pressure for its removal intensifies in the years preceding the 50th anniversary of the Rising, and its sudden demise is, on the whole, well received by the public. Although it is widely believed that the action is the work of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the police are unable to identify any of those responsible.

After years of debate and numerous proposals, the site is occupied in 2003 by the Spire of Dublin, a slim needle-like structure rising almost three times the height of the Pillar. In 2000 a former republican activist gives a radio interview in which he admits planting the explosives in 1966, but after questioning him the Gardaí decides not to take action. Relics of the Pillar are found in Dublin museums and appear as decorative stonework elsewhere, and its memory is preserved in numerous works of Irish literature.


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Laying of the Foundation Stone of Nelson Pillar

nelson-pillarConstruction 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.nelson-pillar-bombing

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.