Today marks the 50th anniversary of the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Its destruction is one of the more notorious episodes in the history of the Irish state. But first, let’s scroll back a bit.
Nelson’s Pillar was originally built in 1808-09 to commemorate Admiral Nelson. It was a granite column which stood almost 40m tall, including a 4m tall statue of Nelson on the top. Arguably, it was the presence of the good Admiral that led to the pillar’s demise. The pillar was a monument that divided opinion from when it was first built. On the one hand, it was a popular visitor attraction. For a small fee, visitors could climb the 166 steps to the top of the pillar and enjoy the views of the city centre. It also became a popular meeting place on the street. On the other hand, having Admiral Nelson on the top of the pillar didn’t go down well with everyone. Especially seeing as he was such a prominent icon of British imperialism, plonked right in the middle of the main street of Ireland’s capital city. The debate about this rumbled on, especially after Ireland gained independence. Occasionally there were debates about what, if anything, to do with the pillar. It was suggested that Nelson should be taken down from the pillar and replaced with someone or something more fitting. Executed 1916 patriots such as Pádraig Pearse and Jim Larkin were suggested, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary and John F. Kennedy. Nobody could quite agree on what to do with the pillar.
In the end, the decision was taken out of everyone’s hands. At 1:32 a.m. on 8th March 1966, the pillar was badly damaged by a bomb. The bomb was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The explosion destroyed the top third of the pillar. It was decided that the damage to the pillar had made it unsafe. 6 days later, the rest of the pillar was blown up by the army and that was the end of that. The head from Nelson’s statue enjoyed an eventful afterlife. It was “liberated” from storage by a group of university students who proceeded to lease it out to the highest bidder. So the head spent some time in the window of an antique dealer’s shop in Soho, London. It made an appearance on stage at a live Dubliner’s concert and even featured in a commercial for ladies stockings. Sadly, its wandering days are over – it’s now to be found in the reading room of the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street
Many urban myths sprang up about the pillar and some have survived to this day.
Contrary to the rumours, it wasn’t the IRA who blew the pillar up. They had form when it came to blowing up imperial monuments in Dublin but they’d not blown any up for several decades. In fact, when Nelson’s Pillar was blown up, they distanced themselves from the bombing. It’s now believed that the late Liam Sutcliffe (he died in 2017) and two others who had broken away from the IRA did the deed.
Legend has it that when the army blew up the rest of the pillar, that the explosion shattered every window on O’Connell Street. In truth, this did not happen. There was what was described as a “dull thud” and some windows were broken. Mostly though, the street continued as normal.
What’s less well known is what happened to the rest of the pillar. It’s not so widely known that some of the remnants from the plinth have been sitting in the gardens of an old house turned hotel in Kilkenny since the late 1960s.
In 1969 Kilkenny Corporation (as it was known then) asked for some of the stones from the rubble be sent to Kilkenny. They weren’t of any particular value to anyone and were headed for landfill somewhere. There was a debate at the time as to where they should be left in the city. Originally it was thought that they could be placed on The Parade – the street that leads up to Kilkenny Castle. However, it still being a politically charged time, it was decided that this wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Instead, they were placed in the grounds of Butler House. At that time it was a house in private ownership and the owner, a Dr. Harry Roche, was happy to have them sit around his pond.
Rumour has it that the 16 blocks of granite spell out some sort of code but sadly this isn’t true. Still, if you look hard enough….