Wednesday 24 July 2019

Nelson's Pillar

Rory Egan

IN THE early hours of the morning of March 8, 1966, 40 years ago last Wednesday, a large explosion echoed through the heart of Dublin. Nelson's Pillar, which had dominated the Dublin skyline for over 150 years, was blown to smithereens.

The 13ft statue of Britain's greatest naval hero, Horatio Nelson, stood on a Doric column of Portland stone that was 121ft tall - about one-third the height of the Spire, which now stands in its place.

Francis Johnson, the architect for the Board of Works, designed the monument, and Thomas Kirk, who was also responsible for the statues we now see on the GPO, built a decade later, created the statue. Building commenced in Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) in February 1808 and the column was officially 'opened' on October 21 the following year at a cost of £7,000.

The Pillar was a great public attraction: for the princely sum of sixpence (3c), you could climb the 168 spiral steps to a platform which gave a bird's-eye view of Dublin. However, it soon became a political embarrassment for successive Irish governments because it honoured a British war hero.

Nearly as many people hinted at their involvement in its demise as claimed to have been in the GPO in 1916, and it was never quite clear who executed the deed.

After the explosion, a vestigial stump was left. O'Connell Street was closed and Army engineers were brought in to remove it. Their 'controlled' explosion caused much more damage than the original blast, much to the amusement of Dubliners.

The debris was sent to the Corporation dump on the East Wall, but Nelson's head was salvaged and stored in a shed in Clanbrassil Street. It was removed by students for a period of six months that year and made appearances all over Dublin. It was recovered and stored for many years in Ardee Street and later displayed in the Civic Museum in South William Street.

For the last year, Admiral Lord Nelson has been keeping his good eye on the patrons of the refurbished Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street, and is now, at last, a pillar of Dublin society.

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