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Up Goes Nelson

There was an air of inevitability about Horatio Nelson’s eventual demise; King William of Orange, King George II and Viscount Gough in the Phoenix Park had all fallen victim to republican bombings, while Queen Victoria had been rather unceremoniously dumped from her vantage point in Leinster House, removed on her back through the front gates.

There appeared to be no place in the new Dublin for imperial relics, though Nelson lasted longer than most. Given that Irish republicans had spent the late eighteenth century looking to Napoleon and not Nelson, the hostility towards the pillar from certain quarters was not surprising.

Donal Fallon, "Dispelling the myths about the bombing of Nelson's Pillar", The Journal Dec 22, 2016

Nelson's Pillar had been controversial from the day it opened in 1809, with a tug-of-war between the citizens of Ireland who wanted their freedom from the British Empire and those who were of more moderate views. As in any revolution, the majority of the population are just bystanders, no real opinion one way nor the other. The Pillar drew the tourists to Dublin, and most citizens just went about their business around it. However Irish nationalists and nationalist groups were determined to remove it one way or another.


The 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising was approaching and every attempt to remove the pillar through political means had met with failure. A small group, ejected from the official Irish Republican Army for "recklessness", decided the Pillar had to go before the anniversary of the Easter Rising. They decided to get cracking.

The morning of March 8, 1966 on O'Connell Street saw few people about - there was a dance at the ballroom in the Metropole Hotel that was about to end, which would let crowds of people onto the street. A little after 0130, a loud explosion was heard from the vicinity of the Pillar. Buildings rocked and windows smashed. When the dust and noise settled, the 40.8 m tall monument and beacon to Central Dublin had been reduced to a 21 m jagged stump. The explosion itself caused relatively light property damage, given its strength, and no casualties. Stephen Maugham, a 19year-old taxi driver who had just passed the traffic light at the Pillar at the time it exploded, had a narrow escape as stone from the monument hurtled towards his car, causing him to speed up. The taxi wrecked, but he survived.

NELSON PILLAR BLOWN UP: Gardaí search rubble for possible victims Only a stump is left of the Pillar Dubliners dumbfounded as famous landmark vanishes

The government's response came quickly.

Justice Minister, Brian Lenhihan, called the action "reckless" and "an outrage". He further went on to say: “It was planned and committed without any regard for the lives of citizens, and it was providential that nobody had been killed or injured. The wanton damage to property in the immediate vicinity, and the disruption of traffic had inconvenienced thousands of Dubliners.”

Lord Mayor of Dublin, Eugene Timmons, stated that though he'd been advocating for the removal of the pillar for 15-20 years, he "never thought it would disappear in such a manner".

For their part, the IRA denied all responsibility - the statement the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau put out was intended "to make it known that the IRA had no connection with the demolition..." There was no interest in demolishing mere symbols of foreign domination. "We are interested in the destruction of the domination itself".

Rumors suggested that the Basque separatist movement ETA might be responsible, perhaps as part of a training exercise with an Irish republican splinter group. Eight men were arrested, but later released uncharged, and as usual, rumors flew about what happened and who did it. That same Monday night, the Gardaí dictated that all dances be done by 2330 and all other premises be vacated. The solution to what to do with "the stump" was implemented within days.

Public reaction was mixed at the time - for every one who detested it, others felt the city had lost one of its most prominent landmarks. The Irish Literary Assoc urged that the words on the pedestal be preserved and the Royal Irish Academy of Music was considering legal action to prevent the stump's removal. Among the general public, folk songs inspired by the incident became popular: Up Went Nelson by the Go Lucky Four, and Nelson's Farewell by the Dubliners being 2 of the most popular. American press reported that the mood in Dublin was gay, with shouts of, "Nelson has lost his last battle!" A rumor circulated that Irish president, Eamon de Valera, phoned The Irish Press with suggested headline "British Admiral Leaves Dublin by Air" (his family owned and controlled the paper). There were accounts of Dubliners smashing pieces of the Pillar for souvenirs.

The Dublin Corporation, along with the Pillar's trustees, decided to remove the stump. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland made a last-minute request for an injunction to delay demolition on planning grounds but it was denied. Plans to bring down the stump proceeded. On March 15, 1966, huge crowds of people squeezed into Dublin city center to watch the planned controlled demolition. It was reported that there was a carnival and jovial atmosphere, though they were cordoned off by the Gardaí. The public were promised a "dull thud" from the controlled demolition. In fact, the second blast to the Pillar, orchestrated by the Irish army, was loud beyond expectation...and broke more windows. The first blast, though, racked up more damage claims.

April 29, 1969 the Irish parliament passed the Nelson Pillar Act, waving goodbye to the Pillar Trust and vesting ownership of the site with the Dublin Corporation. The trustees were compensated for the Pillar's destruction to the tune of £21,170 and an undisclosed sum for loss of income, legal fees, etc.

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