On Statues and Historical Legacy
Floyd will never know how his death changed the world, the innocent Minneapolis guy who had a racist cop stand on his neck for 12 minutes while he gasped for breath and eventually expired has inspired people the world over to stand up against institutionalised racism – and not before time. America has faced the brunt of the protests and rightly so as the home of racism, 50 years after the Civil Rights protests, America still has a serious problem with racism. It’s disgusting – as is sectarianism. Both need to be eradicated but that’s obviously easier said than done. How can anyone treat another human being as inferior just because of the colour of their skin or religion?
I grew up in a sectarian cesspit, so I understand how it works. it’s insidious, evil, divisive, and it causes conflict and generally it’s a product of colonial rule that used division to control.
Much of America’s problems, in this context, stem from the slave trade which brought millions of Africans to the country to be treated as subhuman by European settlers. The American ‘story’ is one of this great country, defender of the free world, democracy, Space explorers, the American dream, but the reality is a nation of European migrants who plundered and pillaged, destroyed the native American nations, murdered in their millions, and then built a new nation on the slave trade and created a racist division which has lasted to the present day. Despite the theory of saving the free world in world wars, they decimated the Asian world, dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the most murderous terrorist attack in history, they also rampaged through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and devastated whole communities. So, while the Irish have benefitted greatly from the American dream, it has remained for many, just a dream.
The good people of Bristol did the UK and the rest of the civilised world a favour when, in one fell swoop, they toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth and dumped him into the river near a bridge named, ironically, after an 18th century Bristol slave called Pero Jones. Even more ironic, Colston’s ships would have docked close by with their ill-gotten gains! Indeed, like many cities throughout the UK, the glee of the ‘statue removers’ as they rolled the deposed Colston along the quayside was palpable. This wasn’t an act of violence as some apologists for racism would have us believe, it was a long-overdue removal of a disgusting individual who had traded in human beings in the 18th century. The laying low of Colston has started a movement which might have major implications right across the world and nowhere more appropriate than in Ireland and Scotland.
Of course, when I suggest Ireland, I’m more referring to the 6 counties where statues of all sorts of war criminals, slave traders, and military adventurers abound. Thankfully, in the Republic, we made a fairly good job of ridding the country of obscene reminders of our colonial past. Some people are saying that it is ‘all history’ and should be left, I don’t agree. As a History Teacher, I believe young students need to be told the truth about their past and not a revisionist history which hides the truth, or an effort by a certain section in society like Eoghan Harris or Ruth Dudley Edwards to say that the British presence in Ireland was an acceptable part of our history. To me, it wasn’t and never will be, and the statues of Kings, Queens and Generals, if not already removed, should be dispatched into the Liffey or Lagan as soon as possible!
Bringing statues to their knees, of course, isn’t a modern phenomenon. In our lifetime we have seen it happen after various regimes were deposed, Hungary in the ’50s, in Cuba, Algeria in the ’60s, Iraq and Afghanistan in the modern era. The image of the statue of Saddam being toppled is still fresh in our minds, but we can go back in time. When the US declared Independence, they tore down a statue of King George III in Manhattan. Statues of Hitler and Nazism were pulled down after WW2. Hitler’s compatriot, Mussolini, received the same treatment physically and metaphorically as anti-fascist fighters tore his likeness down as well as hanging Il Duce and his lover upside down after fascism was destroyed in Italy! Images of colonial rule have always been favourite targets when the European exploitation was ended.
Indeed, South Africans decapitated a statue of Cecil Rhodes in recent times. Venezuela, among many Latin American republics, have turned the Christopher Columbus story literally on its head by removing the great adventurer’s statues from their capital cities and, at present, there is a discussion that the statue of Columbus in the Spanish Arch in Galway might be for the chop. An interesting analogy is that the King’s Head pub in the city was originally given as a reward to the executioner who chopped the head off Charles I in the 1650s. Nearly 500 years later Columbus likeness might find itself in the Corrib before long?
In recent times, the Arab Spring saw many statues toppled, Col Ghadaffi bit the dust in a figurative manner as much as anything, not unlike the Miller in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who had a sword stuck up his posterior! Unfortunately, the toppling of Ghadaffi has left Libya a rogue state but, at the time, appeased the bloodlust of the British and Americans. Assad in Syria also had his likeness in stone toppled but somehow, probably with Russian support, has survived. Throughout the Soviet Republics, statues of Lenin abound but many have been toppled
since communism collapsed. In Ukraine, thousands of streets were renamed; in one case it became ‘Lennon St’, but Lenin still holds a special place in the hearts of Russians.
In Belgium, statues of King Leopold II are being hauled down daily. In the 1880’s he controlled parts of Africa 100 times larger than Belgium. Exploitation was rampant, rubber and ivory, and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands was commonplace. Roger Casement worked there for the Diplomatic service and what he witnessed inspired him to bring revolution to Ireland!
In the Southern states of the US the flag of the Confederacy and Monuments galore dot the landscape. They are a by-product of the American Civil War of 1861 and a section of society in that part of the States hold the Confederacy with some esteem but in recent years there has been a movement against the flying of the flag and the recent events in the US has led to calls to remove all statues to Gen Robert. E. Lee and the Confederate forces of the time. They are seen by many to represent support for anti-coloured racism and it’s unacceptable in this modern era. Incidentally, the GAA have said they will ban and confiscate Confederate flags being brought to Cork games in the future. Apparently, Cork fans had a habit of carrying them. I’m sure it wasn’t meant in any way as a show of support for racism but just that they made a nice looking flag with the red of Cork in it, but they won’t be seen in Pairc Ui Caoimh anymore. No more than John 37 won’t be in his position on the Hill at Croke Park anymore, the carrier of the legendary banner passed last year!
So, the statues are controversial in many countries, they were usually erected in countries occupied by some foreign power. The statues represented an occupation Army or Govt, some Royal toady or a local lapdog who had the interests of the foreign power in vogue rather than the native people. I regularly visit Glasgow and the city centre is full of them, it was the second city of the Empire and you just have to walk down Argyll St to George Square and gaze at the splendour of the buildings, all built through the exploitation of some little African country. The British Empire bestowed on Glasgow massive wealth, income from the slave trade and exploitation helped to build the huge sandstone buildings around the centre.
The impressive buildings leave you thinking on the hundreds of thousands who were slaughtered at the sword of imperialism to build them. Big businessmen and military generals have statues built to honour them; the Famine Queen Victoria, Prime Ministers Robert Peel and Gladstone, William of Orange, Army Generals John Moore and Lord Clyde, James Oswald MP and the Cenotaph, the incredible structures around George Sq named after King George III, the City Chambers, Merchants House, George House, Bank of Scotland. All substantial pieces of architecture, all funded by the foreign exploits of slave traders and military expeditions.
The statue of Robert Peel, who founded the Police force, but was a rampant racist, was attacked recently and graffiti sprayed on it! One Saturday, Glasgow being Glasgow, the ‘Loyalist Defence League’ gathered in George Square to protect the Cenotaph and other symbols of Empire from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestors. The mood among the defenders of the Empire who would normally be at Ibrox on a Saturday wouldn’t be improved when they arrived to find the letters ‘IRA’ daubed on ‘King Billy’s statue and weren’t convinced it meant an ‘Individual Retirement Account’ in New York? Another ironic fact which emerged was that William of Orange when he became King in 1689 bought up all the shares of a well-known slave trader. Yes, our friend Edward Colston, maybe ‘King Billy’ might yet find himself toppled and thrown into the Clyde in times to come?
‘King Billy’ brings us nicely to Ireland. I grew up surrounded by wall murals of the Dutch King on his white stallion crossing the Boyne. Again, similar to the statues, it was meant to convey a message; we were inferior, second class citizens. Even though we were white, we were almost treated as coloured. This was institutionalised sectarianism, as rabid and disgusting as racism!
Statues were a prominent part of British rule in Ireland. They were meant to put us in our place and accept that we were part of the Empire project. The Irish were the blacks of Europe! After independence, we had a rather irreverent view on the statues of King Billy and the Famine Queen. They were soon moved or removed, many years later we had the story of statues moving on their own down in Cork, again inspired by religious conviction. It was a bit of a fun story, people were fainting at the site, I recall the old anecdote that apparently the Rev Ian Paisley once visited Ballinspittle, he nodded up at the statue and the statue fainted!!
There are statues in Ireland and there ARE statues, official Ireland once had wall to wall statues of ‘heroes’ of the Empire, William of Orange in 1701, George III in 1760 and Victoria ‘the Famine Queen’ in 1908, for longevity she has no comparison, they built Universities named after her in Belfast, Cork and Galway, my old Alma Mater, there is still, a bit of a statue of her stuck out of the way around the back of the Aula Maxima, at least she didn’t suffer the fate of the statue in UCC which was buried facetiously ‘up to its neck in Fenian blood’ in a cabbage patch in rebel Cork for 60 years, the statue of her all resplendent outside the Dail lasted a bit longer until we became a Republic in 1949 and surprisingly Fine Gael Taoiseach John Costello sent her ‘back home to Australia’, although some parts of the statue are still held in Dublin Castle, they should have dumped her on Rockall! Her long reign was as vindictive and vicious as anything through the centuries, 1m died in the Famine and another million migrated, over the period it’s estimated that another million were evicted and expatriated, 60,000 died on the coffin ships to America and Australia, 3,000 were gaoled in the Coercion Act, 300 killed in street protests, 100 were executed and nearly 300 died in English gaols and the free press was anything but, 12 newspapers were suppressed! For all this ‘service’ to the Irish people Victoria was honoured by a statue in 1908 after a royal visit to Dublin, on it was inscribed, ‘Victoria, Queen of the UK, GB, Ireland & Empress of India – erected by her Irish subjects’, it would make you vomit!
The other statues of the monarchy didn’t fare as well. King George II sat on Stephen’s Green until a few sticks of ‘gelly’ removed him in 1937, likewise ‘King Billy’ met the same fate in 1946. In 1957 Lord Gough similarly was dispatched and George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle woke up the Deer as he was blown up in the Phoenix Park in 1958. The most famous of all demolition jobs was the removal of Admiral Nelson, who met his ‘waterloo’ at Trafalgar, then from his pillar in O’Connell St in ’66. ‘Up went Nelson in old Dublin’ went the great Dubliners song of the time, mind you when you see the Spire maybe we should have left him there!
Of course, Belfast is still full of relics of Empire although their time there might be coming to an end soon as well. Statues to Edward Harland and William Pirrie of Harland and Wolff that bastion of sectarianism from partition and before, just as iniquitous as racism! Victoria had another one built-in 1903 in Belfast which I presume is still there and in the modern era a statue was erected in 2013 for ‘Operation Banner’, the almost 40-year military campaign in the 6 counties by the British Army from ’69-’07, unlikely to be a cross-community endeavour? Of course, over the same 40 year period, statues and memorials have sprung up all over the 6 counties in republican areas. They represent the communities they came from much more than the Victoria or Nelson.
In the Republic of today, we have statues aplenty. Originally, a statue to Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith was erected at Leinster House but were removed in 1940. The difficulties with the Civil War still caused problems, although strangely at the back of Leinster House near Merrion Square is a statue of Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, still in situ to the present day, admittedly covered by shrubs to avoid any embarrassment? Our most famous thoroughfare, O’Connell St was once called Sackville Street after the Duke of Dorset, Lord Sackville, the Lord Lieutenant at the time. Many name changes were made after the war of independence but many were left which was strange. In the ’70s erecting a statue to the man who read the Proclamation at the GPO, Padraig Pearse, was blocked in case it gave succour to the fledgeling Provisional IRA. Indeed, Conor Cruise O’Brien wanted to rewrite the school history books to say that the Rising was a peaceful rose revolution and build a statue to Mother Teresa instead.
Today, we are an advanced European Republic and democracy. We have no time for monarchy except for the dough heads who eagerly watch Kate and Meghan get their Princessly leg over two ginger numpties to engage in a life of ‘drink, drugs, sex and debauchery’ at the Palace while never working a day in their lives amid fawning servility from a section of the population who are brain dead? Saying all that in a seriously facetious mode we are not above reproach ourselves. In the last 20 years Govt buildings, Schools, Universities, Hospitals, all have had to remove religious statues which were perceived not to embrace inclusivity in the 21st century.
Moving statues, World War statues, Confederate statues, Slave Trader statues, Revolutionary statues, Royal statues definitely kept the sculptors in work over the centuries. But, in 2021, we are being asked questions which some mightn’t like to hear the answers. In Galway, there are suggestions that the statue of Columbus be deposited in the Corrib. Other dodgy issues have been touched on, GB Shaw was a nazi apologist supporting Hitler and called for Churchill to invade Ireland during WW2. Likewise, WB Yeats who espoused the Blueshirt cause and supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Other great national heroes like Daniel O’Connell, Edmund Burke and John Mitchell supported slavery back in the day, yet all wished for national independence, emancipation and freedom from British rule. In Ringsend, at the moment there are calls for the statue of Sean Russell, the IRA Chief of Staff during the English bombing campaign in WW2, to be removed. Why? Because he sought help from the Germans, just the same as Roger Casement did in 1916.
Those calling for the statue’s ‘head’ are of course from a Blueshirt persuasion and had no problem supporting Franco at the same time. But, it shows the times we are living in. ‘Black lives matter’ but so does everyone else. The days of colonialism, imperialism, racism and sectarianism are long over and the last vestiges need to be removed from society. If it means a statue or two in the Liffey, then so be it.
To conclude, the statue of Oliver Cromwell is in situ for the moment outside Westminster, but like Churchill et al he might soon become the target for a swim in the Thames. During the Peace process Bertie Ahearn refused to sit in a room in Westminster unless a portrait of the ‘to Hell or Connaught’ General and slayer of Drogheda was removed, adding for good measure to Tony Blair, ‘take down the murdering bastard?’ But, ironically, Cromwell in his lifetime challenged Parliament and vowed to change society after which he found himself hung, drawn and quartered’. While in Ireland many of us would concur with the former Taoiseach’s opinions there is also a profound theory that Oliver Cromwell could be classed as the first ‘Republican’. We might need to watch who is first for the Liffey or the Thames.
*Paddy McMenamin is a graduate of NUIGalway. His debut book on a personal perspective on the conflict in Northern Ireland is scheduled for release in Spring 2021.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Publisher. We welcome a response to this blog.