The Daniel O’Connell statue on O’Connell Street is undoubtedly the grandest statue in our city centre, commemorating ‘The Liberator’ O’Connell and standing at the top of what was once Sackville Street in a Dublin gone. The statue of O’Connell himself dates to 1882, the work of John Henry Foley, and boasts some revolutionary bullet holes on close-inspection.
On the day of the laying of the foundation stone in 1864, the Lord Mayor of Dublin Peter Paul MacSwiney told the crowd of thousands that:
The people of Ireland meet today to honour the man whose matchless genius won Emancipation, and whose fearless hand struck off the fetters whereby six millions of his country men were held in bondage in their own land….
It is of course a great irony that O’Connell’s monument should contain the bullet-holes of Easter Week 1916 as it does, with O’Connell a constitutional nationalist opposed to the use of violence to bring about political ends. This statue quite literally saw Irish nationalism move from a constitutional movement to a insurrectionist one, when it found itself caught between the sniper fire of Sackville Street and the rooftops of Trinity College Dublin. One wonders what O’Connell would have thought of James Connolly, one of the leaders of that rebellion, giving the title A Chapter of Horrors: Daniel O’Connell and the Working Class to a chapter in his excellent Labour in Irish History!
Yet it is so often forgotten today that while Irish republicans put bullet holes into this great statue, Irish loyalists almost done away with it. On December 27 1969 an explosion at 4.30am damaged the statue representing the ‘Winged Victory of Courage’. This attack was later claimed by the Ulster Volunteer Force.
The figure of Courage in the statue ironically contains a bullet hole of Easter 1916 itself. She is shown strangling a serpent, with her left hand resting on a fasces. In the breast of this figure perhaps the bullet hole the most Dubliners are familiar with is found!
The explosion rocked the capital, with one taxi driver telling The Irish Press “the whole car and the bridge seemed to shake with the explosion. It was one tremendous wallop and then the crash of glass almost together.”
Incredibly, days following the bombing of the monument, an explosion would occur at Ship Street near Dublin Castle, neat to detectives HQ. It has stressed in media reports it was believed no connection existed between these explosions, yet reports into this explosion in the Irish Independent noted that:
A phone call received at Independent House on Saturday night named three of the five Belfast men who, the callers said, were responsible for the monument explosion. The anonymous caller said the men were all members of an illegal organisation and that two of them were explosives experts and ex-army sergeants who had been discharged three months ago from the Royal Rangers for suspected political activity.
The bombing of the O’Connell monument was not the first attack on an Irish nationalist monument in the south by Ulster loyalists, nor was it to be the last. Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown had been attacked too, the irony of northern protestants attacking the graveside of a leading United Irishman lost on many at the time. Later, in 1971, an explosion would destroy the Wolfe Tone statue at Stephens Green. Newspaper reports noted that “the statue was wrecked, leaving only the base. Huge slabs of the bronze sculpture were hurled 20 feet in the air.”
The attacks on O’Connell and Tone are interesting as much has been written on statues from the other political tradition which were attacked and destroyed in Dublin, but little is said of the attacks on Irish nationalist icons. It is undeniable attacks on monuments like the King William of Orange statue on College Green, Nelson’s Pillar, Lord Gough’s monument in the Phoenix Park and others represented a dangerous sort of cultural warfare, but it should be remembered loyalists too engaged in such attacks. Dublin is fortunate many lives were not lost while this dangerous game was being played over the iconography of the Irish capital.