Nelson Pillar (Irish: Colún Nelson), known generally in Dublin as Nelson's Pillar or simply The Pillar, was a large granite pillar topped by a statue of Horatio, Lord Nelson, located in the centre of O'Connell Street in Dublin. It was destroyed by a bomb in 1966.
The pillar was a Doric column that rose 36.8 m (121 ft) from the ground and was topped by a 3.9 m (13 ft) tall statue in Portland stone by Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk, RHA (1781-1845), giving it a total height of 40.8 m (134 ft) – some 10 metres shorter than the more famous Nelson's Column in London. The diameter of the column was 13 feet (4.0 m) at the bottom and 10 feet (3.0 m) at the top.
All the outer and visible parts of the Pillar were of granite, from the quarry of Golden Hill, Kilbride, County Wicklow. The interior was of black limestone.
The Lord Mayor of Dublin, James Vance, is credited with first coming up with the idea of honouring Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar with a monument, in 1805. After consultation with the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Richmond, a meeting with leading citizens was held and a committee of 21 duly appointed, containing, as well as the Mayor, John La Touche, M.P., Robert Shaw, M.P., Hans Hamilton, M.P., Arthur Guinness, and the Chief Secretary, Charles Long. A subscription was opened, with the banks leading the way in forwarding funds. However, it took over two years for the finances to get close to the projected budget of over £5,000.
The original plans for the Pillar were submitted to the organising committee by William Wilkins (1778-1839), a London architect, Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, and accepted by them in 1808. However, for some reason, the committee wrote later that they were incapable of "executing his design precisely as he had given it." Francis Johnston (1760-1829), the architect who built the General Post Office (to the left in the picture above) was brought in to execute the design, and "afforded the necessary assistance with his acknowledged ability, which...he did with the utmost cheerfulness." He made several drawings of his own, one of which met the approval of the committee sufficiently for construction to start. Johnston and later architects laid out Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) so that the buildings, the GPO and the Pillar were in scale to the size and length of the street and to each other.
Construction of the Pillar was started with the laying of the foundation stone on 15 February 1808. It was inaugurated with a procession of dignitaries including the Fellows and Provost of Trinity College and the Lord Lieutenant and his wife. Notably, it was finished long before the similar Nelson's Column was erected in Trafalgar Square in London in 1849. The pillar became both a tram terminus and a common meeting place for Dubliners and offered the city's best public viewing platform, reached by a spiral stairway inside the column.
The original entrance to the pillar was underground but G. P. Baxter designed a porch in 1894 which was added to allow direct access from the street.
Before its destruction the adult public paid sixpence (children under 12 were half-price) to climb the 168 spiral steps to a platform which gave a bird's-eye view of the city.
The construction of Nelson's Pillar had been, from the outset, controversial. As early as September 1809 a paragraph appeared in Watty Cox's Irish Magazine, stating: "The statue of Nelson records the glory of a mistress and the transformation of our state into a discount office." Until 1922 most of the criticisms were due to aesthetic considerations or because it was considered an impediment to traffic. In May 1876 a letter to the editor expressed his feelings in verse“
"In the centre of our city
Where the lines of traffic meet -
In the very path of commerce,
Blocking up a noble street -
As a figure in a picture
Seems to make its right surroundings
Quite ridiculously small.”
In 1876 the Corporation took up the question of removal, but discovered it did not have the power to remove it. They tried again in 1891, causing much debate in the city and in Parliament, but due to financial considerations they did not succeed. A writer on Dublin's history in 1909, Dillon Cosgrave, acknowledged the temporary nature of the Pillar's existence, remarking that "For a very long time, the project of removing the Pillar, which many condemn as an obstruction to traffic, has been mooted, but it has never taken definite shape".
In 1923, when W. B. Yeats supported its removal on aesthetic grounds ("It is not a beautiful object."), in 1926 and again in 1928 the debate was renewed. Several attempts were made subsequently to have it removed, including by the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, in 1960. Other plans, also not implemented, saw proposals to replace Nelson at the top of the Pillar by other statues.
At 02:00 on 8 March 1966, a group of former Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers, including Joe Christle, planted a bomb that destroyed the upper half of the pillar, throwing the statue of Nelson into the street and causing large chunks of stone to be thrown around. 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 19-year-old taxi driver, Steve Maughan, whose taxi was destroyed.
Two days after the original damage, Irish Army engineers blew up the rest of the pillar after judging the vestigial structure to be too unsafe to restore. This planned demolition caused more destruction on O'Connell Street than the original blast, breaking many windows.
Within a matter of days, a group of Belfast school teachers: Gerry Burns, Finbar Carrolan, John Sullivan and Eamonn McGirr, known as The Go Lucky Four, reached the top of the Irish music charts with "Up Went Nelson", a popular folk song set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which maintained the number one spot for eight consecutive weeks.
The rubble from the monument was taken to the East Wall dump and the lettering from the plinth moved to the gardens of Butler House, Kilkenny.
Ken Dolan and six other students from the National College of Art and Design stole the statue's head on St. Patrick's Day from a storage shed in Clanbrassil Street as a fund-raising prank to pay off a Student Union's debt. They leased the head for £200 a month to an antiques dealer in London for his shop window. It also appeared in a women's stocking commercial, shot on Killiney beach, and on the stage of the Olympia Theatre with The Dubliners. The students finally gave the head to the Lady Nelson of the day about six months after taking it, and it was later housed in the Civic Museum in Dublin. It now resides in the Gilbert Library, in Pearse Street.
The Nelson's Pillar Act was passed in 1969, transferring responsibility for the site of the monument from the Nelson Pillar Trustees to Dublin Corporation. The site was simply paved over by the authorities until the Spire of Dublin was erected there in 2003. In 2001, whilst the site was being excavated to prepare for the foundations of the spire, The Irish Times announced the discovery of a 200-year-old time capsule. This, in fact, turned out to be a dedication plaque commemorating Nelson's achievements.
On 23 April 2000, Liam Sutcliffe from the suburb of Walkinstown, claimed on the RTÉ radio programme Voices of the 20th Century that he was responsible for blowing up the monument. Sutcliffe is a republican supporter who has been linked in the past to the Official Sinn Féin movement. He maintained that in Operation Humpty Dumpty, the explosive used was a mixture of gelignite and ammonal. He declined to confirm his remarks when he received a visit at home from Garda Special Branch detectives four months after his radio interview in August. Then, on the morning of 21 September, he was arrested under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act and invited to repeat his allegations at Store Street Garda Station. His reluctance to do so, while in custody, resulted in his release without charge that night. The Gardaí prepared a file for review by the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide if the matter should be pursued further.
The identity of the bombers has been a source of speculation and conflicting claims of responsibility.