[Re]moving statues

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Volume 18

Nelson—started it by standing imperiously over the Irish for so many years on his Sackville (later O’Connell) Street pillar before being so memorably cut down to size a little after half past one on the morning of 8 March 1966. The following day, the Irish Army (pictured here) had the more difficult task of removing the stump. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Nelson—started it by standing imperiously over the Irish for so many years on his Sackville (later O’Connell) Street pillar before being so memorably cut down to size a little after half past one on the morning of 8 March 1966. The following day, the Irish Army (pictured here) had the more difficult task of removing the stump. (Keystone/Getty Images)

If every new political movement in Ireland puts the issue of the split as the first item on the agenda at its first meeting, then it can sometimes seem as though all historical debates on this island (at least, all debates about the history of this island) begin with an attempt to establish ‘who started it’. Thus, in the approved manner, let me begin by saying that the IRA (when it still knew what it stood for and hadn’t yet become coyly provisional or murderously real about this) started it, where ‘it’ is the Irish fashion for disposing of statues of which one does not approve. Or perhaps we ought to say that Nelson started it, by standing imperiously over the Irish for so many years on his Sackville (later O’Connell) Street pillar before being so memorably cut down to size a little after half past one on the morning of 8 March 1966. Keen to prove its continuing relevance 50 years after the events of 1916 and looking for a spectacular way of demonstrating that it had not gone away (to borrow a later turn of phrase), the remnant IRA took the rather situationist step of assassinating somebody who had been dead for 160 years.
And because, if there’s one phrase that appears in Irish historical and political debate more than ‘Who started it?’ it’s ‘What about . . . ?’, before anybody else says it—what about . . . Gough? The equestrian statue of Hugh Gough (variously Baron Gough of Ching Kang Foo (sic) and, later, Viscount Gough of Goojerat, ‘hammer of the Sikhs’, in recognition of his service in China and India respectively) that once stood in the Phoenix Park was attacked by the fascistic group Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (Architects of the Resurrection) on Christmas Day 1944 (see HI 17.5, Sept./Oct. 2009, pp 40–5). And it was attacked again, more effectively, in 1957 by the IRA, leading to his removal, though Gough is due for a resurrection of sorts (or at least his horse is) with a piece by artist John Byrne, set to be unveiled in Ballymun shortly (http://www.john-byrne.ie/project.php?projectsId=7). But whoever did ‘start it’, the symbolism of bringing down an ‘imperial’ hero was obvious, and the more recent toppling of statues of Stalin, Saddam and even Spain’s General Franco (The Guardian, 7 October 2009) has reminded us that there’s a universal appeal in gesture politics of this kind.

 

Unsurprisingly, and on a more official level, in the aftermath of independence there was a shuffling of the deck in various public places in Ireland. Statues of Victoria and Albert outside Leinster House, for example, were either removed or downgraded into less prominent locations. The former Leinster House Victoria was eventually transported to Australia in the 1990s (there’s an irony there somewhere). The old queen returned to attention in 2003 when Sinn Féin campaigned against Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company’s decision to renovate a small cast-iron cupola erected to commemorate her visit to what was then Kingstown in 1900 and later vandalised during the 1981 H-block hunger strike. ‘This monument’, SF argued, ‘is a shameful legacy of British imperialism in Ireland and has no place in a modern republic.’ The campaign was unsuccessful and the monument, though now slightly less tatty than before, is currently ignored daily by as many people as used to ignore it.

 

Gough is due for a resurrection of sorts (or at least his horse is) with this recast piece in bronze by artist John Byrne, set to be unveiled in Ballymun shortly. (John Byrne)

Gough is due for a resurrection of sorts (or at least his horse is) with this recast piece in bronze by artist John Byrne, set to be unveiled in Ballymun shortly. (John Byrne)

And so, it seemed that in the 21st century the statues of Ireland could largely rest easy on their plinths, platforms and pediments . . . until the New Year of 2005, when a further outbreak of less than academic debate over who deserves to be remembered, and how, began. It was then that a group of self-appointed revisionists attacked the statue of the controversial IRA chief-of-staff Seán Russell in Dublin’s Fairview Park, decapitating it and removing its right hand in an action which the London Observer reported as being ‘in memory of the victims of the Holocaust’. This occasioned a retrospective look at this most controversial nationalist chameleon, a man capable of collusion with both of the great tyrannical regimes of the twentieth century, Nazi and Soviet (see Brian Hanley’s ‘“Oh here’s to Adolph Hitler”? The IRA and the Nazis’, HI, May/June 2005). I do not propose to revisit the debate around him and his actions but the story of this statue has continued to fascinate me ever since. Work began not long after the attack (which wasn’t the first of its kind but was the most dramatic) to replace the statue, which belongs to the National Graves Association, a non-party-political group but with strong republican sympathies.

 

In the meantime, another blow for freedom was struck by a person or persons unknown who scribbled ‘Ní seoiníní sinn go léir’ (‘We are not all toadies’) on an abstract sculpture, as opposed to a statue, in Carrigaline, Co. Cork, dedicated to the memory of the accomplishments of Francis Drake as a sailor. A local councillor was quoted as saying that she thought that ‘we have gone way beyond this’, but she evidently did not speak for all her constituents. By June 2009 Seán Russell had been recapitated (if there is such a word) and his new head has been fitted with a tracking device. Indeed, the former stone statue had been replaced with something more robust in bronze, and the Sunday Times reported that it had been rendered ‘one of the most untouchable’ pieces of public art in the country. This was obviously a red rag (or a green, white and orange one?) to somebody, and not long thereafter the base of the statue was, as the young people say, tagged with graffiti reading, inter alia, ‘NAZI SCUM’ and  ‘HITLERS FRIEND’ (does nobody learn how to use an apostrophe any longer?). And when it surely seemed as though the situation could not get any more surreal, further reports began to emerge of botched attempts to clean up the plinth by freelance nationalists not directly linked to the NGA, followed by the appearance of peace symbols and, according to the Sunday Tribune (23 August 2009), it was all becoming ‘increasingly bizarre’.

 

 

The Seán Russell statue in Dublin’s Fairview Park after decapitation in January 2005. (An Phoblacht)

The Seán Russell statue in Dublin’s Fairview Park after decapitation in January 2005. (An Phoblacht)

For some years now I have used the stories about these various statues and memorials to illustrate to my students at Trinity how debate over revisions and counter-revisions in Irish historiography are not simply fought out in journals, seminar rooms and lectures but have concrete (or stone or bronze) expressions in a popular forum. Unfortunately there’s currently too much history being made and I’m finding it hard to keep track of events in Fairview, but if I seem to mock in what I’ve written so far, it’s largely because I do. The desire to topple grandiose statues of tyrants in the immediate aftermath of some revolution, coup or war is understandable and is hardly likely to go away, but this daubing and counter-daubing all strikes me as a little pathetic. It happens that I used to walk past Fairview Park most days when I lived nearby and I was aware of Russell’s statue. I would never have subscribed money for its purchase and nor would I have voted in favour of its construction, if I’d been asked, but I wasn’t about to take a lump hammer to it either. I tend to see all figurative sculpture in public places as faintly ridiculous: Cato’s preference for a future in which people wondered why there was no statue in his memory over one in which they wondered why there was is a dignified and mature response to the whole idea. And if I was going to blow anything of the kind up, it would be the bronze figure of Phil Lynott on Harry Street, just off Grafton Street—not because I object to Thin Lizzy but because it’s in hideously bad taste, as all such modern, kitsch bronze statues are. But my reservations notwithstanding, lifelike figures of people deemed worthy of being remembered will continue to be erected in public places; and as every city is a palimpsest, continuously overwritten as new values and priorities are inscribed on it, so we should all learn to live with, even if we do not always like, the bronze and stone men and women amongst us. After all, without them, where would pigeons go? HI

David Limond lectures in the history of education at Trinity College, Dublin.

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