Friday, March 25, 2016


I thought I'd have a look at the Dublin Corporation Dangerous Buildings Section file to get a little more insight into the the damage done by Óglaigh na hÉireann in their blowing up of Nelson's Pillar.

You could be forgiven for thinking I was referring to the original explosion when a dissident IRA group blew Nelson off his pedestal in the middle of the night on 8 March 1966.

But that's not the case. My main interest is in the damage caused a week later when the Irish Army (a branch of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Defence Forces to you) blew up what remained of the column.

My objective was to check out the compensation claims for damage to private property resulting from the second explosion as part of my campaign to kill the urban myth that the IRA explosion was so clean it did no damage at all (apart from to the Pillar) and the army's explosion was so dirty and incompetent that it broke every window in O'Connell Street.


But before I come back to my main objective, I would like to share with you some attempts that were made to purchase Nelson's decapitated head from Dublin Corporation.

The first of these was from a firm in based in Bradford, Arndale Developments Ltd., who were looking for a piece of authentic sculpture for a commercial development in the town of Nelson in Lancashire. What they had in mind was a worthwhile bust or statue.

They were clearly wide awake and quick off the mark. Two days after the first explosion, on 10 March, they wrote to the Dublin City Manager asking if they could have the head.

They must have been the first of many to get the reply that the head was not the property of the Corpo and they should take the matter up with the trustees who owned it. Which they said they would do.

Only two days later, on 12 March 1966, the Corpo received a telegram from Paul Kelly in London offering £50 for the head.

Much later in September 1966, the editor of Trinity News at TCD, Seán A Walmsley, was looking for the head for permanent display in the College. Some people might feel that this would be a fitting resting place for Nelson, even if it was only his head.

But what really took my fancy, as far as attempted purchase goes, is from 2 October 1966, when a request was dispatched from Washington DC, in the following terms:
A chara

I wish to purchase the head of Nelson's Pillar. I will pay a dollar (which you will find enclosed). Please send the head COD (Collect on Delivery) to the address below.

Thank you.

Go raibh míle
maith agat

Mr. Valentine Matelis
2009 Evansdale Drive
Hyattsville Rd 20783

The Irish bits, which I have italicised were in a relatively old form of the cló gaelach (Celtic script).

Now, when you've stopped smiling, you may begin to feel the tone of the letter a little peremptory and condescending. You may be a little less surprised when you know that Mr. Matelis was a former Grand Knight (1957-8) in the Knights of Columbus.

One wonders if there had been any backchannels involved here. However I suspect that is unlikely as it would then have been known that the Corpo were not in a position to dispose of the head.

And in case you end up confusing Mr Matelis with the Supreme Knight, I should point out that there could be around 14,000 Grand Knights in this organisation of 1.8 million members.

Loan / Rent

Purchase was not the only avenue pursued in the interest of possession of the head. It was nicked from a Corpo stores building in Ardee St. between 3pm on the 16th and 8.30am on the 18th of March 1966.

This was the work of a bunch of students from the National College of Art and Design, where certain student body funds needed topping up. The students then hired out the head to anyone willing to pay a reasonable price. I came across them in the course of a fashion shoot on Killiney beach and they were at great pains to preserve their anonymity, at least as far as the car registration was concerned.

The results of this fashion shoot appeared in the Evening Press on 2 April 1966. And this is only one of the head's public appearances while "on leave" from the Corpo.

It was returned to the Corpo on 6 September 1966 with Principal Officer V O'Brien reporting to Principal Officer F Feeley that he took possession of the head at 1pm on that day.


And now back to my main preoccupation, the claims to the Corpo for compensation for damages to private property.

At a City Council meeting on 7 November 1966, Matthew Macken, City Manager, said that in relation to the first blast, 36 claims had been received for malicious damage, totalling £18,864 19s 3d, and that 33 claims for damage to property totalling £4,180-9-10 had been received after the Army demolition. As the latter claim included a claim for damage to scaffolding used during the operation, of £1,000, and as this was part of the operation itself, claims from third parties not involved in the operation would reduce to about £3,000 or about a sixth of those from the first explosion. So I think that effectively demolishes the urban myth once and for all.

But my interest goes further and I had a look at a breakdown of those claims resulting from the second explosion which had been received by 10 August 1966. While 35 claims were expected at that stage, it appears 33 finally materialised by November.

In August concrete claims amounting to about £3,000 had been received but as this included the scaffolding, we are talking about some £2,000 in 20 other claims. Of these 13 appeared reasonable to the Corpo while they recommended very significant reductions in the remainder.

In terms of the size of individual claims, the largest by far was from Worths at £400, followed by both Madame Nora's and Slowey's at £250 each. Next came the Northern Bank (+ Canadian Embassy) at £160 and Burton's at £127. The smallest came from Aer Lingus (£2) and the Pillar House Jewelers (£4).

Worth's claim was considered wildly excessive and the Corpo estimated £131 to be a reasonable claim instead of the £400 sought.

McDowell's put in for £60 and that was considered reasonable.

Other Expenses

The Corpo also had a lot of other expenses for preparations in the run up to the army explosion, repairs to infrastructural damage such as gas mains, subsequently destroying the base and, of course, removing tons of rubble. All in all these came to around £6,000.

But, at the end of the day, comparison of the relative damage done to private property by the two explosions offers the best and most straightforward yardstick for debunking the urban myth on its own terms.

Beyond the call of duty

Coming back to the head to round off this post. Were it not for the initiative of a Corpo worker in going beyond the call of duty, and indeed his own authority, in stopping a private individual from removing the head before the Corpo took it into safekeeping at 4am on the morning of 8 March 1966, we would not have the pleasure of viewing it at the Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse St. today.

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