Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin: history, what it was, and why the Spire replaced it

Long before the Spire, the Irish capital was home to another iconic structure – but how much do you actually know about Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin?

If you have ever wandered around Ireland’s capital city, chances are you will have come across this iconic cultural sculpture.

A symbol of Irish spirit, the Spire of Dublin is a historic Irish landmark. However, before the monument took pride of place, another structure occupied the site.

Join us as we explore Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin: what it was, its history, and why the Spire replaced it. 

What was Nelson’s Pillar?

Nelson's Pillar on Sackville Street in Dublin.

Nelson’s Pillar, erected in 1809 on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), was a large granite structure upon which sat a statue of British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Issued in commemoration of his victory against the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), the 13-foot high statue stood atop a 120-foot tall Doric column.

As the original blueprints by London architect William Wilkins did not prove cost-effective, Francis Johnston – famed for the General Post Office – was commissioned to modify them accordingly, before passing them on to Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk who brought them to life.

Nelson’s Pillar became a centre point within Dublin with many using it as a meeting place alongside a terminus for trams and, eventually, buses.

Instantly recognisable with Wicklow Granite donning the outside and Black Limestone on the inside, the structure also boasted a viewing platform offering stunning panoramas of Dublin City – provided you were up for the 166 step climb required to get there!

The history behind Nelson’s Pillar

Nelson's Pillar in 1960.

They say that all good things must come to an end, and sadly this rang true for both the history and legacy of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin.

In 1966, the Irish public awoke to the news that shortly after 1:30 am on 8 March, Irish Republicans had executed ‘Operation Humpty Dumpty’ and blown up the iconic structure.

A week later, the Irish Army carried out a controlled explosion on the remains of the commemorative monument, with some passers-by even opting to pocket pieces of rubble as souvenirs!

Initially placed in a storage yard for safekeeping, Nelson’s head was later stolen by NCAD students to be used as a means of clearing their debts.

The head went on to make several paid appearances over the following months – including TV and magazine ads, plus a concert starring The Dubliners at the Olympia Theatre.

Nowadays, it resides in Dublin City Library and Archive located on Pearse Street.

Nelson’s Pillar replacement 

The Spire on O'Connell Street.

In the early 1970s, proposals came flooding in for a fitting replacement for Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin. Favoured most was one honouring Irish revolutionary and Easter Rising leader, Padraig Pearse (which would have coincided with his one-hundredth birthday). However, in the end, the proposal was unsuccessful.

By the time 1981 rolled around, The Pillar Project was in full swing – a scheme whereby artists and architects joined together to conjure up the perfect replacement for the monument.

One proposal focused on a Millennium Arch (similar to the Arc de Triomphe) with an eternal flame at its tip to represent the city’s spirit. Another tinkered with the idea of honouring James Joyce for the “non-political, non-military,” and ultimately “non-divisive” figure he was – thereby appeasing all parties.

With nothing proving substantial, an international competition launched in 1998 gathered the interest of 205 entrants – three of which were shortlisted (two British-based companies and one Dublin-based one).

Awarded the honour was London-based firm Ian Ritchie Architects who enlisted the manufacturing services of Waterford-based Radley Engineering. The two worked together to create a stainless steel pin-like monument standing at 398-feet high in the space previously occupied by Nelson’s Pillar – and thus, Dublin’s Spire was born.

Despite initial plans to finish the monument by the year 2000, mishaps with planning permission ensured the project didn’t reach completion until early 2003.

Costing €4 million in total, the Spire (also known as ‘An Túr Solais’ or ‘Monument of Light’) is the tallest structure in Dublin City Centre and requires cleaning every 18 months – a feat which costs around €120,000!

Looking to the future

Will Nelson's Pillar return to Dublin in the future?

This needle-like landmark is of incredible cultural significance to the people of Ireland (Dublin in particular) and unsurprisingly holds immense sentimental value.

However, in 2019 the Taoiseach announced his party’s support of plans to rebuild the original Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin. Though refuted by some, the idea was backed by others, so might we soon come full circle?

Watch this space…

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