Daniel O’Connell Monument by Pat Liddy

Dublin’s tallest statue group is located prominently on O’Connell Street facing onto O’Connell Bridge and the River Liffey. Both the street and the bridge are named after the lofty figure who stands importantly on top of the monument. Daniel O’Connell, known as The Liberator, is justifiably raised aloft as, during his lifetime in the first half of the 19th century, he politically stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

O’Connell was born near Cahirciveen, County Kerry in 1775, the eldest of ten children. He showed great promise at school, so he was sent to France to continue his studies. His stay coincided with the French Revolution and the bloodshed he witnessed instilled in him a deep revulsion of mob violence which became a hallmark of his later political career. On his return from France he eventually became a successful barrister but found his promotional prospects stunted because he was a Roman Catholic.

From the time of the English Reformation in the 1530s and particularly after the total Protestant conquest of Ireland in the 1690s, a set of enactments, known as the Penal Laws, harshly treated the Roman Catholic population. Most civil rights were stripped from them including the rights to practice their religion, to have an education, to own property, to vote and to sit in the British parliament without taking the offensive (to Catholics) Oath of Supremacy. O’Connell vowed to fight this injustice on behalf of what was after all the majority population of Ireland. He determined that he would use only peaceful means to achieve his aims which was in marked contrast to the revolutionary movements in Ireland at the time.

In 1823 he founded the Catholic Association and he was elected five years later to the British parliament (but could not take his seat). Because of O’Connell’s mass support the government feared an uprising and granted the Association its main aim of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Riding the crest of his popularity, O’Connell now set up the Repeal Association to overturn the 1800 Act of Union which formally joined Ireland to Great Britain as one country. He organised what became known as Monster Meetings at which up to half a million attended. These meetings were then banned and O’Connell had to climb down to avoid bloodshed. For his pains he was also given a prison sentence which contributed to his failing health. He made a trip to Italy for recuperation but died in Genoa in 1847. He instructed that his heart be kept in Rome (in the Irish College) and his body be sent back to Ireland. Today it lies buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.

After O’Connell’s burial, a fund, supported by many newspapers and the Catholic Hierarchy, was set up to erect a national memorial. There were some large donations but the bulk of the money was handed up at a few pennies a time from ordinary townsfolk, the poor, agricultural workers and even children. Within 17 years, £8,362 (€1.1 million at today’s values) was in the bank and a two-ton foundation stone of Dalkey granite was laid in August 1864. A competition was announced which was open only to Irish-born (and preferably Irish-living) sculptors. After much debate and disagreement behind-the-scenes, John Henry Foley, was chosen. Foley was born in Dublin but by then his fame had brought him to work in London. Various statues of his already adorned Dublin’s streets and courtyards but arguably his most famous work is that of Prince Albert of the Albert Memorial in London.

Already overworked, Foley set about his design but work was not finished when he died in 1874 so Thomas Brock, famous for his monument to Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace, completed the task. On 15 August 1882 thousands of people had arrived into Dublin from the provinces to celebrate the centenary of the Volunteer Movement and to attend the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition in the Rotunda Hospital Gardens. Overshadowing these events, however, was the unveiling of the almost completed O’Connell Monument. The ceremony was performed by the Lord Mayor and the exuberance (some would say over-exuberance) of the celebrating throngs, with banners flying and numerous bands playing, was undiminished by the pouring rain.

It is a magnificent monument deserving a good scrutiny. Overall, it towers at over 12 metres (40 feet) tall and, wrapped in his cloak, O’Connell himself (usually with a seagull adorning his head!) is 3.6 metres (12 feet) high. Immediately underneath O’Connell is the Maid of Erin, symbolising Ireland, who is pointing at the Liberator and holding in her other hand the Act of Emancipation while her former shackles lie broken at her feet. Nearly thirty other figures surround the drum representing the Catholic Church, the professions, the arts, the trades and the peasantry.

The four bronze ‘angels’ or Winged Victories as they are properly called, stand for the perceived virtues of Daniel O’Connell. Patriotism holds a sword and a shield; Fidelity bears a mariner’s compass and strokes an Irish wolfhound. Eloquence claps a sheaf of papers and addresses her listeners and Courage is shown strangling a serpent and holding a classic bundle of reds. Close inspection of the Victories and indeed of some of the other statues will reveal several bullet holes! These date from the 1916 Rising and the Civil War of 1922/23. They ironically illustrate a more violent path to independence from Britain than Daniel O’Connell would have agreed to, but such are the complexities that arise on any road to nationhood.

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