the night nelson lost his head
Although his pillar formed part of the backdrop of their daily lives for 150 years, few Dubliners felt any true affinity to Lord Admiral Nelson, until the 8th of March, 1966, when - in an immortal lyric by the late Galway’ Joe Dolan, “Old Nelson took a powder and he blew.”
After this explosion we could all sympathise with him, because - let’s be honest - at some time or another at 1.30am we have all lost our heads entirely. Few of us, however, have lost our heads as spectacular as by toppling from a height of 121 feet, and few of us lost the head for as long as his Lordship did.
During the following six months after Nelson’s pillar was blown up, the head from that statue embarked on an odyssey so bizarre that no writer can make it up.
The Students Union at the National College of Art and Design was heavily in debt. While their present-day counterparts might confine fund-raising activities to mundane events like supermarket bag packing - in 1966 a group of art students with more anarchic tendencies and a flair for the Theatre of the Absurd kidnapped Nelson’s head by liberating it from the Dublin Corporation storage yard on March 18.
In a cat and mouse game, the hero of Trafalgar made a succession of unlikely cameo appearances. These included popping up in a fashion shoot to advertise ladies’ stockings on Killiney beach, sharing the stage with the Dubliners during a concert and being smuggled to London. Startled passers-by discovered him on display in the window of an antiques shop owned by a Mr Benny Grey, with Nelson’s austere countenance freshened up by the fact that he had now taken to wearing lipstick.
When the joke became rather stretched and the coffers of the NCAD Students Union became considerably less stretched, the ring-leaders decided to return Nelson to his rightful owners with suitable panache.
On September 6 an open-backed lorry stopped outside the GPO. From the back of it the Dubliners performed a reworked version of Galway’ Joe Dolan’s song, entitled Nelson’s Return, and - using a megaphone - the London antique dealer demanded that any true custodian of the head should make himself known.
Nelson’s head was presented to a startled Dublin Corporation officer and has known several homes since then. As Horatio probably possesses the lowest points total on the Corporation Housing list, he seems unlikely to be rehoused any time soon and can therefore be visited in his current abode: the Gilbert Library in Pearse Street.
The history and fate of Nelson’s head and of the rest of him has now been deftly explored in an entertainingly informative new book, The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of Nelson’s Pillar, by the respected historian Donal Fallon. It traces the ceremonial events leading up to a public subscription being raised in 1808 to erect this pillar, which dominated the city’s skyline for a century and a half, with generations of Dubliners paying a small fee to climb to the top and view the changing skyline.
This view must never have been more fascinating than after the Easter Rising when every surrounding building was decimated. Stories about the rebels trying to blow up the pillar are probably fanciful, but Sean McEntee recalled volunteers using the Pillar to provide cover during the fighting.
The battle plan was premised on Connolly’s ideological notion that the British government would never bomb the property and shops of Dublin capitalists.
The first shots fired by the Helga gunboat put a dent in this theory. Ironically the only thing in O’Connell Street that didn’t suffer any damage was the one thing the rebels would have gladly seen destroyed: the one-eyed adulterer on his perch. Because numerous songs attributed the bombing of the Pillar to the IRA, it passed into popular mythology as an “officially” IRA-sanctioned operation.
Fallon explains how it was a maverick Republican faction, led by Joe Christle, a qualified barrister, who blew up one half of the pillar on March 8. Famously the Irish army caused more damage, six days later, when they blew up the remaining stump.
It shattered into a thousand pieces but those pieces became treasured keepsakes for decades in a thousand Dublin homes, as souvenir hunters pocketed small keepsakes.
Some were not so small: the actor John Molloy liberated Nelson’s sword and used it as a prop on stage. One Corporation worker, Bill Armstrong, used several of the granite blocks to make steps in his garden in Killester, where they remain today.
Numerous readers who have cleared out the effects of elderly relations may have been puzzled to find a small lump of rock kept among their most treasured possessions. Donal Fallon’s book may explain exactly what those lumps were and why Dubliners secreted them away with such merriment.
The Pillar by Donal Fallon is published by New Island (www.newisland.ie)