St. Stephen’s Green as we know it has been open to the public since 1880, thanks to the generosity of Lord Ardilaun, or Arthur Guinness, the great-grandson of the founder of the Guinness company with whom he shared a name. It was Ardilaun who financed the landscaping of the park in the late 1870s, at great personal expense. Prior to this it had very much been a contested space, and as Desmond McCabe has noted in the late 1700s “the square fell victim to quarrels between the Corporation and the residents of the Green as to how it ought to be developed”, while from 1814 the space was effectively privatized under a Local Act, something that was rather common also in late Georgian London. By 1814 the Green was spoken of in an almost entirely negative light in the media, before its effective privitisation. One contemporary newspaper, reprinted by the Freeman’s Journal, commented just prior to this that:
It appears that this extensive Square is likely to undergo immediate improvement: its filthy and neglected state for several years past has been notorious; all parties agreed that is a disgusting nuisance, but no one had found the proper remedy: The Corporation Funds would not allow them, however willing, to make the necessary expenditure; the Inhabitants declined to take the burthen exclusively on themselves….. Government was resorted to hopes of obtaining a City Lottery, Parliamentary Grant, or some general tax, but this having failed, matters rested, and the nuisance was daily increasing.
Today the park is home to a wide range of monuments, which capture the complexities of Irish political history. Robert Emmet, romantic leader of the doomed rebellion of 1803, stands only a short distance from a memorial to Irishmen who died serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Second Boer War. The first individual commemorated in the Green however was King George II, whose monument was erected in 1758. A centre-piece for the park, it played a significant role in politicising the space in the eyes of many.
The decision to place a monument of King George II in Dublin had been made by the City Assembly in 1752, who passed a motion of gratitude for “the many and great benefits they daily enjoy under His Majesty’s most gracious administration and protection.” For the task of carrying out this work, the city chose the talented sculptor John Van Nost The Younger, who came from a family long-established in the field.
The Dictionary of Irish Artists, published in 1913, notes that:
The Corporation of Dublin having resolved to erect a statue of “King George II,” advertised for tenders for the proposed work in 1752. Two designs were submitted by Van Nost, “whom we apprehend,” says the report of the Committee, “to be the most knowing and skillful statuary in this Kingdom”; and one was accepted and agreed to by the Council in July, 1753. Van Nost went to London and had sittings from the King, returning in August, 1754, when he commenced the work. The statue, which cost £1,000 exclusive of the pedestal, was completed in 1756, and erected in the centre of St. Stephen’s Green in 1758, and was, say the Corporation Records, “allowed by persons of skill and judgment to be a complete and curious piece of workmanship.
Van Nost’s work depicted the King in Roman habit upon an equestrian statue. The statue was placed upon a tall pedestal, which it has been said ensured it’s visibility from as far away as Nassau Street. It is likely that this owed as much to security concerns as to aesthetics. Earlier monuments erected in the city to figures of authority, such as that to King William III at College Green, were subject to frequent ridicule and vandalism. In 1710 for example boisterous students from Trinity College Dublin covered the statue of William in mud and liberated the King of his truncheon. Yvonne Whelan has noted that while this statue “effectively served as one of the first symbols of Protestant Dublin’s allegiance to the crown” it is important to also note that “it was a means by which those at odds with the established regime could give vent to their dissatisfaction, hence the many attacks it suffered.” Certainly, King William’s troubled existence at College Green may well have influenced George’s huge pedestal.
Thomas Newburgh, in his poem ‘The Beau Walk’ published in 1769, commented on the placement of the statue in a highly protected situation by writing:
But lo! A statue from afar salutes your eyes,
To which th’ Inclosure all Access denies.
UNLIKELY THREATS: WELLINGTON AND ALBERT.
In 1814 and 1815 there was much heated debate in the city regarding the possibility of a testimonial to Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, replacing the monument of George II in the centre of the Green. The Freeman’s Journal reported on 22 February 1815 that:
It was yesterday finally resolved, at a very full meeting of the Managers of the Wellington Fund, that the Testimonial should be erected in Stephen’s Green….They have adopted the recommendation of their Committee, declaring the centre of the Green, if unoccupied, the most desirable site for the trophy.
This occurred at a time when there was considerable investment in the Green towards its improvement, with a Bill for the Improvement of the Green passed in May 1814. Support for the placement of Wellington in the centre of the Green came from various quarters, including the Freeman’s Journal, who noted that “The tribute to the Duke of Wellington must be, as we conceive, on such a grand and extensive scale, that no situation in the Metropolis can meet the design but Stephen’s Green.”
‘A Citizen’, writing to the same paper, argued that the desire to improve St. Stephen’s Green by Dublin’s elite and the desire to elect a suitable monument to Wellington in the city went firmly hand in hand, with the following appearing in the newspaper of 19 April 1814
An era has now opened on us, great and grand indeed, universal peace, by the downfall of that despotism which has agitated Europe for 20 years, and that effected through the primary instrumentality of our great and illustrious countryman Wellington: he opened the door, he led the way, Ireland feels it, and glories in it, he is her son, and she is justly proud of him. The nation has come forward with a liberal fund to erect a trophy, a national testimonial to this consummate General…. But the Managers of this fund want a situation suitable for such a purpose, St. Stephen’s Green presents itself, but the Green is in so filthy and so vile a state, that they could not think of disgracing their object by placing it there, unless suitably improved for that purpose.
G.N Wright, writing in a classic 1825 history of the city of Dublin, not long after this drawn-out dispute, encapsulated the row perfectly by noting “it was ultimately decided that a king ought not to be removed to make way for a subject!” The Lord Lieutenant laid the foundation stone for the present day Wellington Testimonial on 17 June 1817, far from the Green in the spacious surroundings of the Phoenix Park.
The monument of King George II appears to have been vandalised significantly around this period, something clear from notes of a Dublin Corporation meeting printed in the Freeman’s Journal in October 1815, when officials debated the issue of decorating the statue of King William of Orange on College Green, with one official instead seeking to turn attention to the sorry state of King George II:
Look, said he, at the statue of George the Second, in Stephen’s Green, and you will see the tattered, forlorn, and mutilated state it is suffered to remain in. The horse wants a leg, and from that want the statue seems ready to tumble from its pedestal….it should be repaired and painted, that we may show equal respect to our present deserving race of Kings.
In addition to the Duke of Wellington, Prince Albert was proposed for the Green. At a meeting of the Dublin Prince Albert Statue Committee in the Mansion House in March 1862, it was proposed to erect a monument to Prince Albert in St. Stephen’s Green, and to rename the park as Albert Park. There was considerable opposition to this from nationalist elements in the city, and The Nation newspaper reported one meeting of the movement for the free-opening of the park where it was stated “the opening of St. Stephen’s Green should be for the people alone, and not a compliment to a foreign prince. If any statue was to be erected in the place, it should be that of Daniel O’Connell.” While this may not have resulted in George II being reformed from the green, the renaming of the park would certainly have relegated him to a status below Albert.
GEORGE II AFTER INDEPENDENCE.
The process of removing ‘imperial’ monuments from the streetscape of Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland began almost immediately following Irish independence, in many cases with people taking it upon themselves to remove the symbols in a manner not unlike what was recently witnessed in the Ukraine where Vladimir Lenin took more than one tumble. In Galway in May 1922 for example it was reported that thousands cheered as a monument of Lord Dunkellin was hurled off a pier head in the city. Dublin witnessed several bombings in the 1920s designed to remove monuments from the streets, and George II was targeted on Remembrance Sunday 1928, as was the much more controversial monument of King William of Orange at College Green. Remembrance Sunday had become a flashpoint in Dublin post-independence, denounced as an imperialist display of power in the pages of An Phoblacht and other nationalist publications. As Brian Hanley has noted:
For republicans—the IRA, Sinn Féin, and after 1926, Fianna Fáil—Poppy Day was a celebration of imperialism, an affront to everything they stood for. It represented the flaunting of the despised Union Jack, the ‘butcher’s apron’, over those who had fought its representatives from 1916 to 1921. Despite the fact that some republicans had fought in the Great War themselves, including leading IRA figures such as Mick Price, and the legendary Tom Barry, Poppy Day was seen as ‘nothing more or less than homage of loyalty to England’s King’. Indeed the eve of Poppy Day became an important mobilising point for the IRA and the whole spectrum of radical republicanism.
The bombing of the two monuments received significant attention, though in the case of the George II bombing at least, the action done minimal damage. The Irish Times reported that “the efforts appear to have been made simultaneously, and without any great success, for although some masonry of the pedestals was displaced, the statues themselves remain proudly erect.”
A second bombing of the George II monument, this time in May 1937, done significantly more damage to the monument, and resulted in its removal. This bombing coincided with a Royal Coronation, so much like the Remembrance Sunday blast the timing was chosen for maximum publicity and to make a political statement. Internal Garda reports, contained within the Department of Justice files at the National Archives of Ireland, state clearly that Gardaí believed the monument and other symbols like it were at risk:
We found that the probabilities of attacks and premises and objects having British associations during this period (Coronation Week) were anticipated by the police, and that all necessary precautionary methods were taken…..
The advisability of placing an armed clothes Garda to protect the equestrian statue of George II in Stephen’s Green was discussed among other things….
On 12th May, at 2.30am, Cigire Maher rang up ‘S’ Branch, Dublin Castle, asking if a member of that Branch would be detailed for duty protecting the monument. He was informed that this would not be possible owing to the demands made on ‘S’ Branch, and particularly as arrangements had to be made to protect the arrival and distribution of English newspapers on the morning of the 13th of May.
The internal report into the bombing of the statue also revealed a rather bizzare dimension of the story – that Gardaí discovered the explosive device several hours before it detonated on 13 May 1937.
About 3.50AM, Gardaí scaled a later to inspect the monument, discovering “a parcel covered with clay at the left front hoof, and another at the left rear hoof. The former was described as about the size of a soft hat; the other as somewhat smaller. The parcels were connected by wires.”
Remarkably, despite being aware of the presence of what appeared to be explosives, Gardaí remained at the site. “During their examination none of the members heard any sound such as a clock ticking”, and the official report notes that “at about 8 a.m, the Gardaí who were on duty at the monument were sitting on the seats under the base of the monument. They were required to remain in the Green until relieved, and had requested that breakfast be sent up to them from the Station. This arrived shortly after 8 a.m, and the men left the immediate vicinity of the monument to partake of it. They left probably between 8.5 and 8.10, and had little more than reached a place of comparative safety when at 8.15am the mine exploded. Had this occurred some minutes earlier, it is unquestionable but that a number of the Gardaí present would have been killed.”
It was a bad night for the authorities, as the Royal Coat of Arms symbol was blown from a building at Exchange Court.
Writing to the Minster of Justice, P.J Routledge in the aftermath of the bombings, one government minister drew his attention to the widespread gloating around these bombings in the republican press, noting that “some people are so encouraged by the immunity which those responsible for the explosions at St. Stephen’s Green and Exchange Court have enjoyed that they feel they can now offer open incitement for a third bombing outrage.” In particular the Minister was appalled by a poem entitled ‘Victoria’ which appeared in the Wolfe Tone Weekly, advocating the bombing of the Queen Victoria at Leinster House!
Undeniably, the Green today does feel that it is missing a centre piece. As happened with the centre of O’Connell Street following the bombing of the Nelson Pillar in 1966, albeit on a lesser scale in the case of the Green, there have been sporadic campaigns to replace George II. A letter in The Irish Times in 2012 from the O’Brien Clann Foundation for example argued that Brian Boru should occupy the centre of the green!
Sir, – The Victorian ambiance of St Stephen’s Green seems perfect for a classical equestrian statue of Ireland’s greatest High King, Brian Boru, the millennium of whose death is fast approaching.
We believe Brian Boru deserves the place at the centre of the park, where the statue of King George once stood. Once in place, it would appear to visitors as though the park was designed around the likeness of an Irish leader, rather than a foreign colonial ruler, or bed of flowers.
Monuments to political figures, whether they be British monarchy or native Irish heroes, have undoubtedly politicised public space in Dublin through the centuries. The next time you walk through the Green, stop in the centre and try and imagine just what this imposing monument may have looked like before your eyes. Then, be grateful they put Wellington in the Phoenix Park!