Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Pillar

This book is a little gem.

Before I go any further I have to declare an interest. Eight of my photos appear in the book, including the one on the cover, and I am absolutely thrilled to be associated with it. Donal has thanked me in the acknowledgements in a manner that will boost my ego for the rest of the year. So, at this stage I'm biased.

However, that doesn't stop me being objectively enthusiastic about the book. I knew my photos were in it before ever I got a copy, but I was apprehensive. This was a first hardcopy outing for precious photos taken in 1966 so I was hoping the book itself would be up to scratch.

I needn't have worried. It is well researched, tightly written and eminently readable. It not only traces the history of the Pillar under a number of chapter headings, but it includes a lot of contextual material with gives the story its depth and breadth.

I have had an interest in the Pillar since I first saw it and have followed its story down the years, but this book has provoked some new thoughts and, from my point of view, confirmed some old convictions (or prejudices if you will).

The author is very careful to present the full picture and he doesn't take sides in any of the many controversies around the Pillar. He has enough respect for his readers to bring them the facts and let them make up their own mind.

And he brings an amazing amount of material together, summarising it with all the skill of the committed historian in a way that reads a bit like a thriller.

Like many another Dubliner I didn't really have any strong views on the Pillar while it was there, except for the usual wondering of why we had to have an Englishman, to whom we owed nothing, dominating the main street of our capital city.

Unlike many another Dubliner, I had actually been up the thing, and taken photos from it. That would not have happened had I not been showing a visitor to Ireland around the town.

This is the bowsie, while he was still up there, taken from the viewing platform through the wire mesh. There used to be a simple railings around the platform but a combination of suicides and a general fear for the safety of the less careful led to the whole platform being completely caged in.

It was only after he was blown off his pedestal and after the rest of the pillar had been demolished and the street tidied up that two things struck me.

With the dominance of the Pillar gone, the GPO took its rightful place as the most important building in the street, and this for the first time ever as the Pillar was already in place when the GPO was built.

With the vaunted verticality of the Pillar now gone, the street looked twice as wide and you could, for the first time since it was erected, appreciate the work of the 18th century Wide Streets Commission.

So here was an opportunity not to mess it up again. Nothing higher than the statues between O'Connell and Parnell should have been erected. Then we would still be able to experience the exhilaration of the day when all this dawned on me.

Now, you should remember that, at the beginning of the 19th century, the original Pillar was erected in a fit of exuberance at Nelson's victories and his success in protecting the Empire of which we were then part.

At the end of the 20th century we opted for a replacement in keeping with the hubris of the Celtic Tiger. A tower reaching up to the heavens, without any regard for its surroundings, something between the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf. The people we had become looked on it and were pleased. God help us.

When my son first saw the picture above, he made some comment about Onan. And he was right. The erection of this monstrosity was an act of self gratification to the exclusion of our cultural and built heritage. It was a spit (and a right gullier) in the face of history and aesthetics by a crowd of troglodytes who were seduced by the prospect of immediate gratification and incapable of leaving well enough alone.

And to be fair to Donal, I should say that the last two paragraphs above are my own, and my own alone. Others, no doubt, will have different views. The great thing about the book is that we can now argue them out in an informed way and what more could you ask for?

Two final remarks.

The book effectively rebuts and lays to rest forever an almost half century slur on the Irish army who did a fine job demolishing the remains of the column and provided the citizens of Dublin with an unforgettable night's entertainment into the bargain.

The book is dedicated to Shane Mac Thomáis, "a gifted historian and a true Dubliner", who died tragically earlier in the year. The best compliment I can pay the book is to say that he would have been honoured by the dedication and enjoyed reading it no end. RIP.

Get it and read it. You won't be sorry.

A page of links relevant to the book.


Vivion Mulcahy said...

The Pillar. I too wondered why it was there. I too have been up it.
> Nelson. A hero to the English, a nonentity to most Irish people. But I have to say that his column in Trafalgar Square is impressive. Higher and more graceful than our Pillar.
> The Spire. Representational of nothing. Symbolic of nothing. Vastly out of scale with the street. As a friend of mine said, the Spire's only purpose is to support the beacon that warns aircraft of its presence.
> I agree that nothing higher than the existing statues on the street should have been erected. How about an empty plinth (as in Trafalgar Square) where artworks, chosen by Dubliners, could be placed for limited periods?
> Now there's an idea....

Póló said...


I like your friend's comment. Says it all in one sentence.

Open plinth would be a good idea if the gurriers didn't nick the exhibits in the dark of night, or even in the light of day nowadays.

Maybe a stocks.

Or a tasteful monolingual street name plate with An Lár on it.

Póló said...


Yes, Trafalgar Square is impressive on both those and many other counts.

Nelson in London in the early 1960s