On this Day: Up Went Nelson’s Pillar

On this Day: Up Went Nelson’s Pillar

Date: 29/10/2020 09:01

On 29th October 1809, Nelson’s Pillar was opened to the public on Dublin’s Sackville St (now O’Connell St). The date marked the fourth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, and it is worth noting that Dublin’s pillar, funded by public subscription through the efforts of city notables such as Arthur Guinness, went up many years before the better-known London landmark, which wasn’t completed until 1843.  

From the outset, Dubliners had a love-hate relationship with the monument. On the one hand Nelson was regarded as a hero by a wide cross-section of the population, and the pillar was a popular tourist attraction. The column’s internal steps led to a viewing platform with a vista across the changing cityscape, and at the time of Queen Victoria’s visit, it was described as ‘Dublin’s Glory’, and seen as part of the very fabric of the city. On the other side, there were those who disliked the design and a rising nationalist sentiment saw the pillar as a symbol of Ascendancy. Consequently, the pillar was targeted by the Fenian rising in 1830, and the Easter Rising in 1916, and by urban planning campaigns that sought to replace it as part of city improvement schemes. However, attempts to remove the monument were serially unsuccessful. The column can be seen in archive footage amongst the ruins of Sackville St after the 1916 rising, as can be seen in the opening part of a newsreel from the time, and it remained in place long after Irish independence. 

It is still visible in O'Connell St Dublin, Monsignor Reid’s amateur film from 1947, on the IFI Irish Film Archive.
A plan to replace the pillar in time for the anniversary of the Easter Rising had come to nothing but in March 1966, a powerful explosion destroyed the upper part of the structure. At the time the action was blamed on the IRA, who denied responsibility, and even ETA, the Basque separatist group. In 2000, a former republican admitted in an RTÉ radio interview that he had blown up the column on his second attempt. Miraculously, no one was injured in the blast. The explosion was condemned by the Justice Minister, and there were efforts to protect the remaining stump from removal. The stump can be seen along with the clearing up operation in the clip Up Went Nelson's Pillar. However, on the grounds of safety the remnants of the statue were blown up. Contemporary myths suggested that the over-enthusiastic tidying up operation caused more damage than the initial explosion.

The Irish Press ran a headline ‘British Admiral Leaves Dublin by Air’, allegedly at the suggestion of Eamon de Valera. Prior to its destruction, the statue had been written about by Brendan Behan and Louis MacNeice, and The Dubliners and Tommy Makem made songs to mark its demise, but it was a group of Belfast teachers, the Go Lucky Four, who scored a surprise No.1 hit with the song ‘Up Went Nelson’, sung to the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body’.

The statue was eventually replaced by another loved and hated statue embodying the River Liffey, widely known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi, and more recently by the Spire of Dublin in 2003.