Sally Richardson reviews Reinventing Modern Dublin: streetscape, iconography and the politics of identity by Yvonne Whelan, UCD Press £18.99
ON 1 MARCH 1966 Nelson’s Pillar, which had controversially graced (or disgraced) O’Connell Street since 1808, was blown up by a bomb planted by a republican group. It was one of the more unceremonious occasions in a process that had been going on for many years — namely, the reclamation of Dublin’s public spaces from the British.
Yvonne Whelan’s careful, meticulous study covers three hundred years of Dublin’s history of contested spaces and territorial struggle, and includes maps, tables, illustrations and extensive quotations from historical documents and reports.
The British claim to Dublin was expressed by the construction of a townscape full of the iconography and imagery of the colonial power’s military might and authority - often opposed by the local inhabitants. The three drunken Trinity students who were imprisoned, fined and expelled after treating King Billy’s statue on College Green to a mud bath in 1710, were part of a time-honoured Dublin tradition of inflicting indignities on royal images.
As Dublin Corporation took on an increasingly nationalist complexion during the second half of the nineteenth century, monuments to Irish patriots and cultural figures challenged statues of British royalty and military leaders for domination of public spaces. Street and bridges were renamed in celebration of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.
The establishment of the Free State gave new impetus to this process. Ireland’s claim to nationhood was showcased at the 1939 World Trade Fair in New York with a stunning pavilion by Michael Scott, which combined the traditional and the contemporary in an uncompromisingly modernist building on a shamrock ground plan.
Yvonne Whelan brings her study up to date with London architect Ian Ritchie’s Dublin Spire, which now occupies the site where Nelson’s Column formerly stood.
She comments on its lack of any political or national reference, seen by some as emblematic of Dublin’s contemporary international and pluralist culture and of the confidence of a country that no longer needs national icons, but by others as symptomatic of a country that has lost its way and has been absorbed into global consumerism.
Perhaps these tensions help to give many-layered Dublin its vitality. The author remarks that women are ‘strikingly absent from the monumental landscape (except) in allegorical form. Here, perhaps, is a new area for contest.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2004 Sally Richardson