Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Nelson's Pillar (1963) And What's To Be Done With History?

(The Pillar, 1963, Dublin Corporation)

This beautifully composed photograph of Nelson's Pillar appeared in the Official Guide To Dublin published by the Corporation in 1963. At the time this photo was taken, the Pillar was not long for this world, famously being blown up, first by the IRA, then finished off by the Irish Army, in 1966. Below you can see the stump that was left after the IRA bomb.

(The Pillar, 1966, Archiseek)

The annihilation of the British rule era statue was only the most successful and famous in a line of physical force urban planning by republican elements in the city. Previous, less successful targets of attacks included the statue of Field-Marshall Gough* in the Phoenix Park and of King William Of Orange who stood for centuries on College Green but suffered vandalism all down the years. Worn down by literally centuries of vandalism King Billy was  finally removed in 1928 following an explosion.

(King Billy, College Green, c1900, Streets Broad And Narrow)

As part of more official erasure of monuments there was the removal in 1947 of a statue of Queen Victoria, which had stood in the grounds of Leinster House from 1904. That statue had an afterlife of its own detailed over at Come Here To Me.

(Queen Victoria Statue being removed from Leinster Lawn, 1948, Come Here To Me)

(Cartoon lampooning the removal, published in Dublin Opinion Magazine, August, 1948)

Vandalism and official removal of statues and other symbols relating to the ancien régime is a common postcolonial move, and arguments about whether such traces of the old order should remain continue to this day in Europe's former colonies in Africa and Asia and in former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Ireland, many towns such as Maryborough (now Portlaoise), Queenstown (now Cóbh), and Phillipstown (Daingean, Co. Offaly) were renamed in the wake of independence, as were King's and Queen's Counties, now Offaly and Laois respectively. This practice occurred elsewhere with for example, Léopoldville in the Congo becoming Kinshasa, and Salisbury in Zimbabwe being renamed Harare.

The debate on decolonisation has also extended to the wider built environment with buildings dating to the colonial era often in jeopardy. Few may ever lament the concrete piles the Soviets littered across the map of Central and Eastern Europe but much of Dublin's Georgian heritage was either wilfully levelled or let fall to rack and ruin, partly out of a sense that these buildings represented Ireland's former colonial masters and should be erased. All of this is part of a never-ending public debate about what stories should be recalled and what should be forgotten and I suppose there is no clear right answer. A complete blotting out of our (currently) undesirable pasts would be impossible and probably a huge disservice to human civilisation if it were feasible, but then not everything can or should be preserved. Time marches on, social needs and priorities change.

In the wake of World War II, the Allied Control Commission in Germany ordered the complete destruction of all buildings and memorials linked to the Nazis. At that point in time however, most of Germany lay in ruins and intact buildings were scarce. Hence, despite the order, much of the architecture of the Nazis remained. It was expedient to remove swastikas and other overt Nazi regalia but to leave the buildings intact. A later generation of Germans have debated whether these buildings should be preserved. A similar debate has ensued with regard to the restoration of buildings constructed during Mussolini's reign. It has been pointed out that much of Italy's most prized older built heritage was also undertaken beneath the foot of tyrants.

*The attack on the Gough statue inspired a hilariously crude poem, Gough's Statue, by Vinnie Caprani. Below is the second verse.

"’Neath the horse’s big prick a dynamite stick
some gallant ‘hayro’ did place,
For the cause of our land, with a match in his hand
Bravely the foe he did face;
Then without showing fear – and standing well clear-
He expected to blow up the pair
But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers
And he made the poor stallion a mare!"

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