It was built in 1808–1809, and was among the first and grandest monuments erected in memory of Nelson in the ‘THEN’ United Kingdom. It surprisingly survived until March 1966, when it was destroyed by a bomb planted by Irish republicans. Today the Spire of Dublin stands on its former ground.
It was opened to the public on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1809, the fourth anniversary of the battle. It offered the citizens of Dublin an unprecedented perspective on their city. For the payment of ten pence, they could climb the 168 steps of the inner stone staircase to the viewing platform. For the next 157 years its ascent was a must on every visitor’s list.
The Dublin pillar was finished thirty-four years before the statue of the admiral was hoisted into place on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in 1843, and it was 1867 before the London monument was finally completed with the putting in place of the four lions.
One adverse comment in the Irish Magazine of September 1809 said the completion of the pillar excited no notice and was marked with indifference on the part of the Irish public, who had little interest in the triumphs of a Nelson or a Wellesley. Referring to the recent acquisition of the old Parliament House in College Green by the Bank of Ireland, the writer concluded:
‘We have changed our gentry for soldiers, and our independence has been 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.’
The Irish Magazine was the publication of Watty Cox, a one-time supporter of the United Irishmen.
Many Dublin families of all classes and creeds, including the growing Catholic population, would have had strong personal reasons to rejoice at the victory of Trafalgar. It is estimated that one-quarter to one-third of the sailors who manned Nelson’s fleet were from Ireland, including 400 from Dublin, and upper-class Irish Protestant families were well represented among the officer ranks at the battle.
On 29 October 1955, a group of nine University College Dublin students locked themselves inside the pillar and tried to melt the statue with flame throwers. From the top they hung a poster of Kevin Barry, an Irish Republican Army volunteer who was executed by the British during the Irish War of Independence. A crowd gathered below and began to sing the well-known Irish rebel song “Kevin Barry”. Gardaí forced their way inside with sledgehammers. They took the students’ names and addresses and brought them downstairs. As a Garda van arrived it was attacked by the sympathetic crowd. Rather than arrest the students, the Gardaí merely confiscated their equipment and told everyone to leave quietly. None were ever charged.
At 1.32am on 8 March 1966, a bomb destroyed the upper half of the pillar, throwing the statue of Nelson into the street. It had been planted by a group of former Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers, including Joe Christle. Christle, dismissed ten years earlier from the IRA for unauthorised actions, was a qualified barrister and saw himself as a socialist revolutionary. It is thought that the bombers acted when they did to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. No one was hurt by the explosion. The closest bystander was a 19-year-old taxi driver, Steve Maughan, whose taxi was blasted to pieces.
The official response to the dynamiting of the pillar came from the Government, through the Minister for Justice, Mr Brian Lenihan. He condemned ‘the reckless action’, which had caused wanton damage to property, disrupted traffic, and inconvenienced thousands of Dubliners. In an editorial the same day The Irish Times deemed the Minister’s statement a “tepid” reply to what it described as a ‘coup in the heart of the capital city’ and a direct blow to the prestige of the state and the authority of the Government.
Photo: Nelson’s Pillar, on Sackville Street (Now O’Connell Street) c. 1809
Photo: Colour photo showing the pillar on the morning of 8 March 1966