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The Pillar v. The Spire by Olga Maughan

Article by Olga Maughan ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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I remember climbing the pillar as a young girl, my friend Pauline and I would take ourselves off to town when she needed new clothes, I just tagged along. Her mother, trusting her to choose something nice and sensible, mine would never let me pick out clothes myself; let alone go into town on my own to buy some. She was also given money to spend on something to eat. Pauline was generous and always shared the extra she had with me. She never needed to spend the whole amount her mother had given her so, would save the shilling needed to climb to the top of the pillar by way of a treat. The cost of the entrance was sixpence each, how I remember the climb and the excitement I knew I would feel when I got to the top. Pauline, never feeling the same excitement as me; as she had been up too many times and now it was just old hat to her. One hundred and sixty-six steps to the top, I counted each one. I was young enough then never to feel breathless doing such a climb. I would stop at every little lookout window on the way up to see what the view had to offer, I never tired of it.

At the top at last, we stood and admired the city that was home to us. You could see for miles around; half of the buildings or places my young mind had no names for. What I do remember mostly was the fact that I seemed to be so close to your woman on top of the GPO. She reminded me of an angel, I had a fear of that statue, she looked as if she disapproved of the fact, we were there disturbing her peace. There were three statues, Mercury, messenger of the Gods, Hibernia, representing Ireland and then Fidelity, with her beautiful hound representing the trust we have in our postal service, I’m sorry to say I can’t tell which one was closest to the Pillar as I always tried to look away from her. I could have stayed for the day looking around the city and down below at the size of the people, bikes, buses and cars that ran underneath us passing by on their journey home or to work and not knowing we were watching, unaware of the fact that there were people so high above their heads as they carried on about their business.
This trip into town for me only happened twice that year; it was 1961 and I was ten years old. I came from a family who would never consider going into town unless it was necessary, it was for items such as food, Haffners, a shop I recall where we bought sausages, rashers and perhaps a piece of ham. Arnott’s shop, when the January sales were on and if necessary, Guiney’s if you needed towels or bed linen. You got what you needed for the year so no need to go on a shopping trip on Saturdays like Pauline did.

My family were so set in their ways that asking to be brought up Nelson’s Pillar would have come with a resounding no. They didn’t like the city of Dublin, the outskirts were fine, but going into town was kept to a bare minimum. If it wasn’t for my friend, I doubt I ever would have had the opportunity to climb Nelson’s Pillar. I know it would have been something I would have regretted to this day. Time moved on and the excitement I felt for the Pillar and the climb that gave me so much pleasure soon faded. I was becoming a teenager; it wasn’t cool to want to do things that only seemed to be something a tourist would think of doing. The Pillar was not on my radar anymore.

I have little or no memory of the night in 1966 when the Pillar was blown up. I don’t recall any mention of it in our house. This was something that of course, would be frowned upon and perhaps frighten some members of my family, they had come from Belfast many years earlier leaving things like bombings and shootings behind, or so they believed. We had no television at the time, so I never got to see footage of the aftermath or the interviews with the people who were there to witness it all. Strangely enough, I do remember the army taking over what was left of the Pillar and demolishing it on the 15th of March the same year. There was laughter and talk about how they hadn’t a clue what they were about because they managed to break shop windows in O’Connell street when they brought the rest of my beloved Pillar down.

Years later I met and married my now husband and would learn that he would never be able to forget the blowing up of the Pillar as it had affected his family on a personal level. His brother had been out that evening in his car and had stopped just underneath the Pillar when the explosion happened. He heard a bang and instinct made him put his foot on the accelerator and take off before the top part of the pillar hit the ground. Luckily, he got away unscathed, but his car did need a respray. Thankfully no one was injured that night, except for poor Lord Nelson. He was now in small pieces on O’Connell street, but his head was intact.

This was subsequently stolen, supposedly by third level students and made it way around the country appearing on stage with The Dubliners, an Irish band still popular today. The head is now in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street in Dublin. What a pity it had to come to this, but prejudices run high with some people when it comes to anything English. And Lord Nelson was not wanted on O’Connell Street.

The Pillar was designed originally by William Wilkins and later tweaked somewhat by Francis Johnston, both English architects, the statue itself was sculptured by Thomas Kirk, an Irish man from Co. Cork who studied in Dublin, now, his work of art gone forever. Requests to have the Pillar rebuilt with a different statue was rejected in 1987.
There were proposals for something else to be put in its place but again rejected until Ian Richie’s proposal for the Spire was approved on the 22nd of January 2003. The Spire stands at 390ft and during its construction the foundation stone of The Pillar was discovered. Media sources said a time capsule was also found filled with valuable coins, it kept the people talking for some time, wondering just how much the coins were worth and who would get them. But of course, the stories were just a work of fiction, unfortunately. Far be it for me to criticize any work of art, it’s a matter of personal taste, but the spire is not of my taste.

It’s hard to believe the Pillar is no longer with us, it was after all, there since 1809. I also find it hard to believe the proposal for the Pillar to be rebuilt with a different statue was rejected. Think of how lovely it would be to climb those 166 steps again and to view our wonderful city and have the company of maybe Rory Gallagher up there instead of Horatio Nelson, or maybe Phil Lynott, or Luke Kelly three wonderful men of music, or go down the literary route and have James Joyce or W.B. Yeats for company and inspiration, the wonderful Maeve Binchy, or Brendan Behan. The list is endless, and the possibilities for something like the Pillar goes without saying. Now that the world is getting smaller and people from all over are traveling to our fair city imagine the revenue the Pillar would bring today. Not to mention a few jobs too. What does the Spire have to offer in this regard? I feel nothing at all. What can you do when you visit the spot today? Nothing at all, except look at the size of it and wonder when you strain your neck back to see the top whether it’s crooked, like I have always believed. Is it perhaps my age, are my eyes playing tricks? Maybe. But to this day I can remember the view from the top and the thyme music from Strumpet City plays in my head. How wonderful it would be to see it all again.

I really hope people who don’t like anything English won’t try and get rid of anything else like they did Nelson’s Pilar because if they did, we would be left without many wonderful buildings in Dublin. So many were built by the English, many years ago now. The city would be very empty if this were to happen. I remember my grandfather used to say ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’ I do believe he’s right. Anyhow, isn’t it all ours now? So, let’s mind it well.

(c) Olga Maughan

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I was born in London and raised In Dublin and spent a lot of time in Kildare and Carlow when I was growing up. I worked for 3Com Ireland for as many years as they were in Dublin and loved every minute of it. With two members of the staff there, I walked across the Sahara Desert for charity, for seven long hot days, great experience. My husband and I moved to Cavan in 2004 where I worked for an Educational and Rehabilitation Centre, retiring last year at the age of 66, but I still volunteer with them in my spare time. Since I retired I have a lot more time to sit at my laptop to write and have had short stories published in Woman's Way Magazine. My interests are reading, writing and swimming, although I don't swim as much as I should.