Wednesday 28 September 2016

How Nelson departed from Dublin - and moved in with us

John Daly

Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30

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

Horatio Nelson was always getting in the way at our home. In fact, there were pieces of him scattered all over the house - all of them recovered souvenirs from that fateful night, March 8, 1966, when the famous admiral was blown from his perch high above O'Connell Street.

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My brother, who was a chef at the Gresham Hotel at the time, was just coming off the night shift when the bomb exploded, and was among the first on the scene.

On his next visit home, he arrived laden with chunks of Nelson - and for years afterwards, solid fragments of the famous belt and sword doubled as door stops and conversation starters in the Daly household. One of the admiral's famous quotes - about the medals on his uniform - proved apposite: "In honour I gained them, and in honour I will die with them."

For a certain generation of Dubliners, that night 50 years ago will forever prompt the "where were you?" question - with thousands inevitably claiming to have been right there amid the smoke and debris. Given the strong degree of anti-colonial ire the column attracted for its continued presence on the main street of Ireland's capital long after statehood was achieved, the fact that the monument was not commissioned by the British government, but rather by a syndicate of local merchants, is somewhat ironic.

Completed in 1809 for £7,000, with Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk's statue of Nelson adding an additional £630, the cost was partly met by sailors who had served with the admiral.

Not everyone liked it - particularly 'The Irish Magazine': "We have changed our gentry for soldiers, and our independence is wrested from us, not by the arms of France, but by the gold of England. The statue of Nelson records the glory of a mistress and the transformation of our senate into a discount office."

While Oliver St John Gogarty praised it as "the grandest thing we have in Dublin", William Butler Yeats was inclined to a more circumspect view: "It represents the feeling of Protestant Ireland for a man who helped break the power of Napoleon. I think we should accept the whole past of this nation, and not pick and choose."

But it was commerce, rather than patriotism, that was Nelson's foe after independence - the pillar was holding back the growing traffic of the city. In the end, the IRA solved the problem by setting the charges on that fateful night in 1966, obliterating the statue without breaking a single window on O'Connell Street. In contrast, Irish Army engineers damaged dozens in the demolition of its remains one week later.

Liam Sutcliffe, the mastermind behind the bombing, recalled that the plan, codenamed Humpty Dumpty, was hatched in the Cosy Bar on Belfast's Crumlin Road. "We thought the 50th anniversary of the Rising should be marked with something a bit more dramatic than a parade."

The first attempt failed due to a faulty timer: "I went into Clerys, bought a nail clippers and stripped the device back." Placing the briefcase bomb into an aperture overlooking Henry Street, Sutcliffe was tucked up in bed when it exploded. "I didn't even know it had gone off at all until I saw it on the front page of the paper that morning."

Eamon de Valera, a man not noted for his witticisms, reportedly suggested a suitable headline to the 'Irish Press' editor: 'British admiral leaves Dublin by air.'

The subsequent journey of Nelson's head would surely have been a torture to the once-proud aristocrat. Stolen by students from the National College of Art and Design, the likely lads began by renting the noble noggin for £300 a month to a London antiques dealer.

Later, the once-posh crown appeared on the Olympia Theatre stage as part of a concert by The Dubliners.

As a final insult, it appeared on a windswept Killiney Beach in the background in an advert for ladies' tights. The head now rests in obscurity at the Dublin City Library on Pearse Street, a forgotten face of our colonial past. Monumental echoes of Britain's imperial rule are hard to find in Dublin these days, except for the statue of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, almost hidden by the Natural History Museum.

Another grand monument, the tallest obelisk in Europe and dedicated to the Duke of Wellington, continues to reign in the Phoenix Park.

Mind you, one wonders if Old Nosey likes the view, given the famous comment attributed to him on being born Irish: "If a gentleman be born in a stable, it does not follow that he should be called a horse." Right.

Irish Independent

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