Spire of Dublin: story behind O’Connell Street’s iconic landmark

Ever wondered why Dublin built a big spire in the heart of the city? Here we break down the story behind the iconic monument.

The story behind the Spire of Dublin, O’Connell Street’s iconic landmark

If you’ve ever been to the city of Dublin, you’ve no doubt seen it: a towering, stainless steel, pointy monument standing 120 metres tall on O’Connell Street. It’s hard to miss.

What you may not know, though, is the story behind it. Here we unpack the history of the Spire of Dublin, from why it was built to what it means, so that the next time you walk by the monument, you can truly appreciate its significance.

The Nelson Pillar

The Nelson Pillar in the 1840s
The Nelson Pillar, as depicted by William Henry Bartlett in the 1840s

The bombing of the Nelson Pillar in Dublin in 1966 left a gaping hole in O’Connell Street in the heart of Dublin City Centre. The imperial monument had overseen the affairs of Dublin’s main street since 1809 and suddenly was in need of a replacement.

However, despite the destruction, it was not until 22 January 2003, another 37 years later, that the hole left by the bombing was finally filled.

The foundation stone of the Nelson Pillar was laid by the Duke of Redmond, Lord Lieutenant, on the 22 February 1808 and cost £6,856 to build. The Pillar was designed by an Irish sculptor named Thomas Kirk, and was blown to rubble in March 1966 in a powerful explosion.

Early proposals

Many proposals came in for the replacement of the Nelson Pillar

The Pillar needed replacing, and early proposals in the 1970s argued for the erection of a monument of Irish revolutionary and Easter Rising leader Padraig Pearse to coincide with his 100th birthday.

The proposed monument would have been worth £150,000 and would have stood higher than the neighbouring GPO, where Pearse had fought in 1916, but the plan fell through.

However, by 1988, Dublin’s millennium year, proposals for a replacement had accelerated and led to the establishment of “The Pillar Project.”

The Pillar Project

The Pillar Project preceded the building of the Spire of Dublin

The Pillar Project was a scheme that brought artists and architects together to devise a monument that could replace Nelson’s Pillar.

Ambitious proposals included a “Millenium Arch,” similar to that of the iconic Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with an eternal flame at the top to symbolise the city’s indistinguishable spirit.

Other proposals in the early 1990s included restructuring the pillar with James Joyce at the top of it, who was thought to be a non-political, non-military, and non-divisive figure.

However, much like the plans a decade before, the Pillar Project and other plans were fruitless and it was back to the drawing board for O’Connell Street.

International competition

An international competition led to the Spire of Dublin

An international competition was launched in 1998, and potential contestants were told: “The monument shall have a vertical emphasis, an elegant structure of 21st century contemporary design, which shall relate to the quality and scale of O’Connell Street as represented by the late 18th and early 20th century architecture.”

205 entrants answered O’Connell Street’s call, and the shortlist was eventually narrowed down to three; two British-based firms and the other a Dublin-based firm.

Ian Ritchie Architects

Ian Ritchie Architects won the competition

The winner of the competition was Ian Ritchie Architects, a London-based firm, and it was they who devised the creation of what is now the domineering Spire of Dublin.

The Spire was put up in six different sections, and was originally expected to be done by 2000. Due to difficulty securing planning permission and a High Court case, the first structure was only built on 18 December 2002 and was completed by January 2003.

Thousands gathered in O’Connell Street on a cold January day to witness the erection of the last section of the Spire, which has since become emblematic of this historic city.

The Spire of Dublin

The Spire of Dublin as seen from Henry Street

The Spire of Dublin, which reached a total cost of 4 million euros, stands at an incredible 120 metres (400 feet) high, without doubt the tallest structure in Dublin city centre, with a 3-metre-wide base acting as the Spire’s foundation.

The head of the Spire is 15 centimetres wide and is lit by a small amount of LEDs and moves slightly when the wind blows. It is alternatively named An Túr Solais (The Monument of Light).

Despite what was originally believed, the Spire is not self-cleaning and has to be cleaned every eighteen months. The first clean cost around 120,000 euros.

The magic of the Spire is engrained in its design. During daylight, the life of the city can be seen on the stainless steel surface of the Spire as it passes by, while the dawning of dusk is reflected on the steel as day passes into night.

The stationary buildings that flank the Spire are also visible throughout the day, while its illuminated structure lights up the city at night.

Meaning of the Spire

The Dublin Spire is also called the Monument of Light

Pointing like a needle towards the sky above, the Spire of Dublin is a landmark that has truly pierced the hearts and minds of the city and country’s inhabitants, and it is the first thing that you notice as you make your way into Dublin city centre.

The beauty of the Spire is that it commemorates nothing but toasts Dublin’s bustling present and points forward towards a limitless, brighter, and more prosperous future.

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