I think we all got a good laugh when that statue of English slaver, Edward Colston was taken off the pedestal and tossed into Bristol Docks. Likewise when Americans took down those Confederate memorials. And the Belgians took down the statue of “King” Leopold II.
And as the statue of Winston Churchill in London and Andrew Jackson in Washington DC are under threat, it becomes all the more interesting and amusing.
Colston was a 17th century slaver and the slave trade enriched the Bristol. And Colston used his ill-gotten wealth to be a benefactor to the city. And understandably, in their own terms, the city made a great big statue and named streets for him.
The only problem was that increasingly this statue was seen as a negative reflection of the history of Bristol and especially an insult to its non-white population. And last month during a Black Lives Matter, the statue was gone…….into the docks.
It was, we are told “an act of vandalism” . Others suggest it should have happened years ago.
The city fathers of Bristol had dithered for years.
The dithering of the Bristol councillors is a reminder of how Dublin’s Nelsons Pillar “blew to pieces by the ton, ton, ton” (as the song “Up Went Nelson” tells us) in 1966. On my first visit to Dublin (with Uncle Jackie) in 1961, I was on the viewing platform.
The great thing about Ireland is that we are not a people who tried to steal other peoples land. And post-independence, it is clear that great living monuments like say Kingstown, Queenstown and Maryborough were inappriopriate and became Dun Laoighre, Cobh and Portlaoise. Yet it is a mixed legacy as Bagenalstown, Kells and Navan never really took to their Gaelicised names.
Likewise Offaly is the post independent county that was previously Kings County. And Laois was previously Queens County. Viking names Wicklow and Wexford never caught on. Maybe Time is a great healer. The Irish rarely hold historical grudges.
If Sackville Street became O’Connell Street and Kingsbridge Station became Heuston Station, there are other parts of Dublin that still suggest a British legacy. Not least the Royal Dublin Society. In many towns including Bray and Longford, there are British war memorials.
It seems a fairly reasonable compromise.
In the Republic of Ireland, the bad historical monuments that celebrate oppression can all be “British”. Luckily, from 1922 the monuments are all symbols of “enlightenment”…they are Irish.
Britain does not have the luxury of dating from enlightened times. Therefore British history includes unsavoury characters like Cecil Rhodes. Even the apologists for the man who plundered southern Africa can only offer that “he was a man of his times”. And British history includes Winston Churchill, who won World War Two (with the Americans, French and Russians) but he was an imperialist and a racist who hated the Irish, Africans, Indians and didnt even like the Welsh miners or the working class.
Churchill…Hero or Villain? It depends on whether you read the Daily Mail or the Guardian. This is the only thing I like about England…watching them tear each other apart over their imperialist legacy. Churchill…national saviour who was a bit of a racist before racism became unpopular. Churchill…yes well we cant really decide so we will agonise as liberals always do.
Apparently if and when Churchill is torn down by an angry mob, nobody will know about him. As there are no statues of Hitler, nobody would recognise him from archive footage or be aware of his evil as they would not be able to read books.
Of course there are statues to winners and no statues to losers.
But the southern states of United States of America have great big statues to Robert E Lee, Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis. Winners or losers?
Well that depends. In 1865, they were losers. After a few years of Reconstruction, they were allowed to go their own sweet way. Circa 1900, as the Lost Cause and sons and daughters of Confederate veterans invented the whole gallant Lost Cause myth. So Lee. Forrest and Davis became winners again. And around 1968, they were re-classified as misguided.
Now in 2020, they are losers again.
The Confederates are now proclaimed as losers, rebels and treasonous.
But where does this leave Irish monuments. The photo above was taken last year in Enniscorthy in County Wexford. It commemorates the 1798 Rebellion but rather like the Confederate monuments appeared almost a full century later. Other connexion to American Civil War is that these were erected by descendents of rebels and the history itself was re-imagined as a fight for “Hearth and Altar” as the Catholic priest directing the rebel fighter shows.
“Rebel” does not seem an insult that would annoy Irish people.
Or “Treason”. Or “Loser”.
The difference of course is Racism…the very cornerstone of the Southern Confederacy. But while the balance of terror and attrocity in 1798 was very much on the British side, it is conceivable that in the folk memory of Protestants in South East Ireland, these statues might be insensitive. We cannot deny that the murders at Wexford Bridge and Scullabogue did not happen.
Of course winning and losing is not really applicable in No Mans Land, Norn Iron where a 30 year war was fought to a standstill. Earlier this year I took this photograph in Carrickmore, County Tyrone. In the very heart of republican Tyrone and dedicated to republicans from the county, it is unlikely that it causes any real offence. But these monuments put down a marker for decades and maybe centuries to come.
Republican West Belfast and no doubt in other parts of Norn Iron has monuments erected to IRA or indeed loyalist paramilitaries.
But there are official monuments such as General John Nicholson in Lisburn. In the Indian Raj, he suspected the Indian cooks were intent on poisoning the officers so he fed the meal to a monkey who died and the cooks were hanged. But I suspect the unionists of Lisburn would be mightily annoyed if he was toppled into the River Lagan.
The photograph above is of the John Mitchel statue in Newry, County Down. He endured twenty years of exile for his nationalist views. But part of that exile was in South Carolina where he was a staunch advocate for the Confederate cause. He was a racist. That statue is inappropriate.
Really in Norn Iron, we are not good with statues and memorials. The absurd spectacle of Paul Maskey MP (Sinn Féin, West Belfast) at a mural for murdered George Floyd says more about Maskey’s dedication to photo opportunities than any commitment to Justice.
There are statues that could be erected in West Belfast….to Nobel Peace Prize winners Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams. “Ready for your close up Mr Maskey!”. But of course it wont happen.
Likewise across the Peace Line, there is no memorial to innocent Catholics tortured to death in their romper rooms.
All of the people murdered in the Troubles are simply the wrong type of victims.
With the people who matter, only Lyra McKee really matters.