Statues have long been divisive in Dublin of course, and the statues of figures associated with the British Empire have long been targeted by Irish republicans. As we’ve featured on Come Here To Me before, statues of Irish nationalists in Dublin have on occasion been targeted by Loyalists too. Truly remarkable however is the statue of Sean Russell in Fairview Park, owing to the numerous attacks of a political nature upon it. Russell was a veteran republican who partook in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, before going on to senior positions in the IRA in the 1920s and 30s. He died in 1940 upon a German U-Boat, on route to Ireland. Frank Ryan was also upon the U-Boat, and returned to Germany. Russell’s statue has been targeted by both the Right and the Left, and remains considerably controversial to this day.
The Sean Russell statue was unveiled on Sunday, September 9th 1951. A march of over 1,000 republicans made their way to the monument from Parnell Square, where they were joined by members of the public. A Garda Special Branch report into the march noted that among the organisations and individuals present were in excess of 130 Dublin IRA men led by Cathal Goulding, Cumann na mBán, the ‘Girls Piper Band’ from Dublin, the Transport Workers’ Union Band and republican contingents from both Cork and the north. Members of the Dublin Corporation and the GAA were also identified by the Special Branch. Republican representatives from Clan na nGael in America were among the crowd and would play a leading role in the ceremony at Fairview.
When the march reached Fairview, where members of the public awaited it, numbers grew considerably. The reported noted that:
The procession marched to Fairview via O’Connell Street, Amiens Street, North Strand, arriving at Fairview Park at about 1pm where the general public had already assembled in large numbers, many no doubt attending from the point of view of curiosity.
Nevertheless, the crowd at this period was not far short of five thousand people, including those on the paths and roadway outside the Park proper.
Upon reaching the monument, a brief speech was given by T McMonagle of Clan na Gael, Philadelphia, who unveiled the life-size monument. Newspaper reports noted that three volleys were then fired from six revolvers. The Garda reported noted Cathal Goulding leading a group of men who marched away from he spot where firing had occurred.
Newspaper reports at the time acknowledged the strange circumstances in which Russell had died upon a German U Boat. The Irish Independent wrote that:
Sean Russell died abroad in somewhat mysterious circumstances during the war. The generally accepted story of his death is that about 1940 he was being taken in a submarine from Germany to Ireland when he took ill, died and was buried at sea.
Only weeks after the unveiling of the monument, a letter appeared in the Irish Independent attacking the statue for its pose, with Russell appearing with a clenched fist. The anonymous writer hoped that:
….some group of Irish Republicans, with intelligence and imagination and a true understanding of the ideal to which Sean Russell dedicated his life, will speedily replace this uninspiring and incongruous figure by a Celtic Cross or a statue symbolic of the great, unselfish soldier and his faithful comrades in arms.
As early as May 1952, the Sean Russell statue was targeted as vandals. On that occasion, paint was smeared on the monument. In July of the following year, the arm of Russell’s statue was removed. The pose of the statue was seen by some as a communistic one. As Sean Whelan of the National Graves Association noted in 2009 “his statue was vandalised by a right-wing group who believed Russell was a Communist because of his trip to the Soviet Union.” Prior to seeking arms from Nazi Germany for Irish Republicans, Russell had sought to purchase arms from Soviet Russia in the late 1920s.
Russell’s statue was unveiled for a second time in May 1965, with its arm in a different position. Once more, republicans had marched from Parnell Square to Fairview, though numbers were considerably lower. Commemorations were common place at Russell’s statue in the years following, for example in 1970 former abstentionist M.P Tom Mitchell spoke at a Sinn Féin commemoration at the site. With Russell buried at sea, the statue was the natural location for commemorations in his honour.
In early 2005, the statue would come to make headlines in both Ireland and the UK following its beheading by a self-described ‘Anti-Nazi’ grouping around the time of New Years Eve. That group issued a statement in which they claimed:
Sean Russell was one of many nationalist fanatics who looked to Hitler for political and military support in the IRA’s quest to reunify Ireland at the point of the bayonets of the Gestapo.
‘At the Wansee conference, the infamous Nazi gathering that planned the “Final Solution”, the Jewish community in Ireland was marked down for annihilation. Having freed Ireland from British rule, the Nazis expected their collaborators to help them round-up Dublin’s Jews and ship them off to Auschwitz. That was the price Sean Russell was prepared to pay to end partition.
It should be noted Russell had died by the time of the Wansee Conference. The statement from this group was picked up by various international media outlets, and opened up huge discussion on the collaboration of sections of the republican movement with Nazi Germany. Almost always missing from coverage at the time was any mention of the statue being attacked by conservatives in the 1950s, or Russell’s attempts to secure arms from Soviet Russia.
The National Graves Assocation unveiled a new bronze monument to Russell in 2009, the work of sculptor Willie Malone. It was alleged in the media that this statue had been fitted with sensory alarms, something never verified. At its unveiling, Sean Whelan of the NGA spoke of what the organisation perceived as attempts by some to present Russell as a fascist:
In recent years, there have been repeated attempts by some, in both, the Irish Media and establishment, to further this image of Sean Russell as a fascist. This is in fact a good example of revisionism at work. To criticise Russell as a Republican is fair enough if that’s one’s viewpoint. But false character assassination is entirely a different matter. That! Is both politically and historically, dishonest, immoral and underhanded. This is particularly the case when it comes from members of political groups with far, far closer historical links to Ireland’s fascists than any of Sean Russell’s comrades.
The issue became a political football, seized by some not only in the media but also the Loyalist community in Northern Ireland. Ivor McConnell of the TUV (‘Traditional Unionist Voice’) came forward in opposition to the new monument stating:
Imagine the outcry in the Republic if Unionists erected a monument to one of Hitler’s buddies! Ulster Protestants will well remember how Mary McAleese branded us all “Nazis” – a slur totally without foundation and which she had to apologise for. Yet on Sunday in the capital of her state a monument to an Irish Nationalist Fascist is to be unveiled. President McAleese would need to take a long hard look at the Republic’s less than impressive track record on combating Nazism. While Northern Ireland stood shoulder to shoulder with those who fought for freedom the South sat the war out on the sidelines and offered condolences to the German Minister in Dublin following the death of Hitler.
The bronze statue to Russell has been the target of acts of vandalism on several occasions. Soon after its unveiling ‘NGA Nazi Scum’ and other slogans were spraypainted upon it. Only weeks after this attack, it was again targeted with swastikas daubed upon it. In a bizarre twist to the tale, an anonymous artist would turn the Nazi flags into peace symbols soon afterwards.
In Adrian Hoar’s wonderful biography of Frank Ryan titled In Green and Red: The Lives of Frank Ryan, he states that Russell insisted to a friend that:
I am not a Nazi. I’m not even pro-German. I am an Irishman fighting for the independence of Ireland. The British have been our enemies for hundreds of years. They are the enemy of Germany today. If it suits Germany to give us help to achieve independence, I am willing to accept it, but no more, and there must be no strings attached.
Brian Hanley has written a fascinating article on Sean Russell and the issue of IRA colloboration with Nazi Germany for History Ireland in which he argued that:
Seán Russell may have been uninterested in political debate but he was hardly unaware of these matters. That he was happy to take up residence in Berlin as a guest of the Nazis, meet their high command and propose plans for military action in support of a German invasion was collaboration, whatever his private motivation. Is there not something perverse about an Irish republican enjoying special privileges in the capital of a state that was embarked on a mission to conquer all of Europe?
The article is available to read in full here , and poses interesting questions on the issue.
Sean Russell is sometimes described as the embodiment of physical force republicanism, which is perhaps afar more fitting description of the man than many of the labels used at the time media focus was turned on the statue with its beheading. Given the frequency of vandalism against the statue, and the debate it sparked in Irish life in recent times, this is surely in my opinion the most controversial statue in the city today.