Tuesday 6 December 2016

Flashback 1966: Nelson's Pillar blown up

This weekend 50 years ago, Nelson's Pillar on Dublin's O'Connell Street was bombed

Ger Siggins

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Nelson's Pillar after the explosion, March 1966
Nelson's Pillar after the explosion, March 1966

Shortly after 1.30am, a loud explosion thundered through the night in central Dublin, rocking buildings, smashing windows and toppling a long-dead admiral from his view of the city after more than 150 years.

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A few hours later, Dubliners woke up to the Irish Independent front page telling them "NELSON PILLAR BLOWN UP", and that "Gardaí search rubble for possible victims". Happily, the only victim was that 13-foot admiral, carved from granite quarried at Manor Kilbride, County Wicklow and first hoisted above the capital's main thoroughfare in 1808.

That Horatio Lord Nelson was feted in Dublin was never universally popular with the citizens. Several attempts were made to replace him with an Irish hero, or even remove the pillar completely as traffic congestion became more of an issue with the arrival of motorised transport and trams.

From his location outside the GPO, Nelson did well to dodge the shells and bullets that whizzed around him in 1916. Indeed, a failed attempt was made by the rebels to demolish the pillar before Easter Week was out.

The dawn of the new State led to renewed appeals for a new hero, but the authorities never got around to doing anything about it. Their hand was forced in early March 1966, just weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Rising.

A group of republican activists, including Liam Sutcliffe, laid the explosives that broke the pillar in two, sending half of the 121-foot structure crashing to the street.

"The luckiest man alive today is taxi-man Stephen Maugham (19), of 29 Shantalla Road who was stopped at the traffic lights at the pillar," wrote the Irish Independent in a dramatic front-page report. "The lights turned green and just as he was about to move off, he heard the blast and saw a cloud of rocks falling towards him."

The story was front-page news the next day too, with the poignant banner headline "Only a stump is left of the Pillar", echoed by "Dubliners dumbfounded as famous landmark vanishes".

The Special Branch detained eight suspects, but no one was ever charged and the culprits' identity remained a secret until this century when Sutcliffe admitted his part in a radio interview.

"I was having a drink with an old friend at the time," he said. "The 1916 Rising was being marked with functions and dinners and we thought the Rising should be marked with something a bit more dramatic. My friend's sister-in-law said it was shocking to see a British admiral in O'Connell Street. So I said we should remove it."

The pillar was hollow, and its destruction spelled the end of a great Dublin tradition of climbing up the interior staircase to the top where a viewing platform afforded a spectacular view of the city. In James Joyce's Ulysses Stephen Dedalus imagines a scene where two old women spent the three-pence admission to climb the 168 steps and spit plum-stones down from the platform as they gaze up at the "one-handled adulterer".

The bombing was condemned by Justice minister Brian Lenihan, while Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington lamented that "the man who destroyed the pillar made Dublin look more like Birmingham and less like an ancient city on the River Liffey - the pillar gave Dublin an internationally-known appearance."

The incident also produced some rare wit from then-President Eamon De Valera, who is said to have phoned the Irish Press newspaper to suggest it print the headline "British Admiral leaves Dublin by air."

Six days after the bombing, the army blew up the stump, unfortunately causing far more damage to nearby buildings and windows than the original bomb.

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