Very occasionally we get emails here at Gript from Fine Gaelers complaining that we are too critical of the party, and rarely cover their good ideas. To which I say: Look on this, ye voters, and applaud:
At least in principle, anyway. The reality is much more complicated.
I agree. It’s horrible & useless. Replace it with some structure with a viewing gallery & a rooftop restaurant ( if possible) & that would pay for itself overtime ! https://t.co/Yla7SVCDYb
— Seán Kelly MEP (@SeanKellyMEP) August 12, 2023
All art, and architecture, is a matter of taste: In Barcelona recently, my wife was blown away by Gaudi’s as-yet-unfinished Sagrada Familia. As are, to be fair, most visitors. But to me, it just doesn’t work: Leaving aside that I’m not a fan of art nouveau, up close, it looks a bit out of place and overly ostentatious. I told her that it reminded me a little of a faux casino in Las Vegas, and I was lucky to escape with my life.
Similarly, I expect, the Spire of Dublin likely has its defenders. People who see, or claim to be able to see, a symbolism or a significance that escapes the rest of us. There’s no accounting for taste, either in my case or anyone else’s.
The other problem is, of course, that it’s very easy to hate something, and much much harder to design a replacement that everyone else likes. This, I’ve often thought, explains the Spire almost perfectly. Since the public can agree on almost nothing, when it comes to what to commemorate and how to commemorate it, the Spire exists as a monument to almost nothing. Because it doesn’t say anything, or symbolise anything, it didn’t offend anybody. It is, in essence, a monument to the Irish political process. The architectural equivalent of PRSTV, where something capable of drawing eighth preferences from across the board ends up in power, and those with bolder visions end up on the sidelines.
What it replaced, on the other hand, said a lot: The Spire now stands where Nelson’s column once stood, commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar (where, incidentally, a full third of Nelson’s sailors hailed from this island). That, the IRA decided, had to go because it was too British. The logical thing to do, you’d have thought, would be to replace it with something Irish. And the most Irish thing we could think of, it seems, was a big pointy needle.
Commemorating Irish history is a dangerous business, to be fair, because there are broadly two versions of that history. Version one is an 800 year struggle for freedom that ended in an as-yet-unfinished gaelic revolution and rebirth, in which figures like Padraig Pearse are the central heroes and figures like Nelson and John Bruton and assorted “west brits” are the unquestioned villains. Version two is the much more middle class emergent democracy version, in which this country successfully negotiated and made a go of independence and in which the independence story is largely finished. In this version, people like WT Cosgrave and Sean Lemass are the heroes, and people like Gerry Adams are joined in the cast of villains. Reconciling those two versions of Irish history into a single national monument in the centre of the Capital has proven just too damn hard for the Irish state. Hence, again, the Spire. In its own way, it’s a monument to the national row about how and whether to commemorate the RIC, or the Irish men who died in World War One.
When there’s an answer to that debate, perhaps it might be possible to replace the Spire.
One thing that other national monuments, particularly those in central locations, have in common is that they commemorate a shared national story. The Arc D’Triomph commemorates Napoleon at Austerlitz, which no Frenchman disputes was a great victory. The Brandenburg gate commemorates Prussia’s victory in the 30 years war. In Washington, the Lincoln Memorial commemorates the emancipation of the slaves.
In Ireland, victory in the War of Independence would be, you’d think, the natural thing to commemorate. But the problem is that a good section of the population still don’t appear to agree that we won that war, at least while a quarter of the island remains stubbornly, and of its own free will, British. Add in the complicating factor of the civil war and, well, an agreed national monument to the events of 100 years ago is just out of the question. As, too, is anything religious. Or anything that might in any way be divisive culturally.
So what’s left? If you are, like me, on the minority side of most issues in Ireland, replacing the Spire is a dangerous debate to open. Because it’s much less likely that you’ll end up with something you’re proud to call Irish, and much more likely that in the end, the Spire would end up getting replaced with a 600feet tall statue of Blessed Mary Robinson, donned in her robes as the Chancellor of Trinity College, with her hand outstretched to place a candle in the window.
Be careful what you wish for, in other words. Yes, the Spire is a monument to nothing. But in all honesty, better a monument to nothing than a monument to something, produced from the minds of Ireland’s dominant class.