On this day 56 years ago, an Irish republican blew up a statue of Nelson on top of a 41-m-high pillar in the centre of Dublin. Fifty years on from the infamous bombing, Liam Sutcliffe, the perpetrator, aged 83 in 2016, said he had no regrets, but hated the spire that replaced the admiral even more.
Liam Sutcliffe, the man who made perhaps the most radical change ever to Dublin’s skyline, died in 2017. Speaking to the BBC in 2016, he said, “He was the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
Nelson’s pillar was Dublin’s most prominent monument by a stretch; a place where people would meet before a night on the town, or where young couples met on their first date. It had been there, towering over what is now O’Connell Street (formerly Sackville Street) since 1809, thanks in part to the eagerness of Irish merchants – including the Guinness family – to pay tribute to an admiral who had made the high seas safe for travel. The £7,000 bill was paid for by public subscription.
The London statue, which was erected more than 30 years later, was about 10m taller, but unlike the Dublin version, it had no internal spiral staircase and no viewing platform allowing the public to gaze over the city from Nelson’s feet. Although sightseers may have loved the Dublin pillar, it was hated by nationalists. They believed France had been Ireland’s “gallant ally,” with the Irish tricolour and republicanism inspired by the French. It was therefore a double insult to have a monument in Dublin to a British hero who’d beaten the French.
Speaking in 2016, Sutcliffe recalled: “Every generation tried to do the pillar – going back to the 19th Century, they were at it.”
The idea of demolishing the statue was the subject of fierce debate throughout the 1920s after Irish independence from the UK, however, it ended up that nothing was done. An offer from a Liverpool demolition firm to carry out the job for £1,000 was turned down.
In 1955, a group of students attempted to burn Nelson’s Pillar down, but their attempt ended in failure. Following that, the debate was reignited as the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising approached. Alan Whicker of the BBC was among those who conceded that the monument seemed out of place on O’Connell Street. Walking along the infamous street, he reeled off the Irish heroes whose statues took pride of place in the iconic boulevard – Charles Stewart Parnell, William Smith O’Brien and Daniel O’Connell – before arriving in front of Nelson.
“Nelson?? How did he get up there?” Whicker asked.
The same question was being asked by Liam Sutcliffe, an IRA spy. In the 1950s, he’d joined the British Army as a spy for the IRA to help plan raids on military barracks in Northern Ireland, for the purpose of seizing weapons. By 1966, Sutcliffe had joined a militant splinter group led by brothers Mick and Joe Christie; Joe was a flamboyant barrister who had taken part in the 1955 attack on the pillar as a young law student.
During a chance conversation in a pub with a group of visitors from Belfast, Sutcliffe’s resolve to topple the statue was sparked.
“One girl said to me: ‘Here we are in the capital city and there’s still a big British Admiral in the middle of it.’ What are you going to do about it?'” he recalled in 2016.
“She kept it up for a while, until I told her to wait and see.”
Sutcliffe then asked Joe Christle about it. Christie revealed that a plan was already in progress, and invited him to be a part of it. The idea was to put a bomb made from gelignite and ammonal on the viewing platform at the top of the pillar, with a timer set to go off in the early hours of the morning, when the street would be empty.
Speaking in 2016, Sutcliffe said he regretted the decision to take his three-year-old son with him to avoid raising suspicions.
“If the Special Branch had their eye on the Pillar and seen me going in on my own with a bag under my arm, they might have become suspicious – but with the young lad with me, they wouldn’t pay any attention,” he says.
“I realised after that this was a bad idea. If anything had happened that day, two of us would have gone.”
Others kept watch, while the father and son and an accomplice climbed up the spiral staircase one afternoon in late February or early March 1966, shortly before closing time. They planted the bomb and left. Sutcliffe waited at home for it to go off at 2am on the 1st of March – but nothing happened.
This created a problem: an unexploded bomb nestled in a public place in the centre of Dublin. The next morning, as soon as the pillar opened again to tourists, Sutcliffe went back to collect it. He redesigned the timer, and planted the bomb again to go off a week later, on the 7th of March, this time returning without his son. He again arrived just before closing time, and was the last person to leave.
“I shook hands with the caretaker and said, ‘Thanks very much,'” he said. “But I said to myself under my breath: ‘You’d better start looking for a new job tomorrow.'”
At half one in the morning, a huge blast erupted, sending Nelson and tonnes of rubble crashing onto the silent streets below. The only casualty of the night, aside from Nelson, was a taxi which was damaged. Thankfully the driver escaped unhurt.
Sutcliffe slept through the night, and didn’t hear the blast. It was only on the way to work that he learned the bomb had detonated when, on the way to work, he met a woman at a bus-stop who asked him if he had heard the news about the attack on Nelson’s Pilar. He then saw other passengers on the bus reading the stories about the night-time attack on the pillar.
Recalling the events of that day and his relief that nobody had been injured, he told the BBC in 2016: “On the bus, a fella in front of me had the newspaper, holding it out, saying Nelson was gone. That was it – I knew. I felt great, nobody injured, no damage.”
The Government officially condemned the attack, although it has been said that President Eamon De Valera called the Irish Press newspaper, owned by his family, to suggest it use the light-hearted headline: “British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air”.
The decision was swiftly made by the Government to demolish was remained of the pillar. Sutcliffe said he thought a ball and chain should have been used, but the Government opted for explosives instead – he believed that Taoiseach Sean Lemass and foreign minister Frank Aiken, both former IRA men and veterans of Ireland’s war of independence, could not resist a final explosive farewell to Nelson.
“I pitied the army officer who had to do it. Their job was down low – I was up in the sky,” says Sutcliffe.
“There was no need for a second explosion – but Lemass wanted a bit of a kick out of it, that he would outclass the first one.”
The enormous controlled explosion was met with a deafening roar from celebrating crowds nearby. This blast caused far more damage than Sutcliffe’s bomb, blowing out shop fronts along one of Ireland’s busiest streets.
Balladeers took advantage of the events, with Tommy Makem releasing ‘The Death of Nelson’ and the Dubliners penning ‘Nelson’s Farewell’. Most popular of all though was ‘Up Went Nelson’ by Belfast group, Go Lucky Four, which remained at the top of the Irish charts for two whole months.
As for Nelson, his granite head embarked on an unusual journey. Immediately after Sutcliffe’s attack, it was picked up off the street and brought to a municipal storage yard. But 10 days later, it was stolen by students from the Narional College of Art and Design, as a way of paying off a Student Union Debt. Nelson came to their rescue, and the head appeared on stage with The Dubliners, as well as in magazine and television ads, and people would even pay for the head to make an appearance at parties.
The police were hot on the tails of the students, though. At one event where the head had appeared, plain clothed officers rushed on stage to seize the stolen head – only to discover that the students had replaced the real thing with a paper-mache version, ensuring that the original was safely stored away.
“It took four of us to lift it on a piece of tarpaulin, just one at each corner,” one of the students, Ken Dolan, told the BBC in a 2005 interview.
“When it appeared with the Dubliners, they paid us. When it appeared on the Clancy Brothers album cover, they paid us. The film company doing the TV ads or the magazine ads, they all paid us. We just kept making money with it.”
When the police attention got too much for the students, they brought the head to London. An antiques dealer in the capital, Benny Gray, paid for it to take pride of place in his shop window – according to Dolan’s interview, he paid a staggering £250 a month for it to stand there.
“That was, in 1966, a lot of money, a lot of pints,” he said.
Eventually though, the police gathered up a group of students who had no connection to the theft, and the decision was made to return the head to Ireland. Benny Gray repatriated the granite remains ceremonially on a lorry which drove up O’Connell Street joined by The Dubliners. Not everyone in Dublin was happy to see the pillar destroyed.
In 1969, an Irish senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington took aim at the perpetrator of the attack, stating that “the man who destroyed the pillar made Dublin look more like Birmingham and less like an ancient city on the River Liffey — the pillar gave Dublin an internationally known appearance.”
Today, Nelson’s head remains – it sits in the corner of a library in Dublin, largely ignored.
Sutcliffe broke his silence to confess to the bombing on the Irish radio station RTE in 2000. He was arrested shortly afterwards but was released without charge. Despite the confession, non-one was ever convicted of the plot. Sutcliffe never revealed the names of the two others who were involved along with the Christie brothers.
The spot where Nelson was has been replaced by the tallest structure in Dublin, the Spire, which was erected in 2003 and remains there today, more than three times the height of the pillar.
At Sutcliffe’s funeral in 2017, his son, Mel, said that his father never regretted his decision to blow up the pillar.
“Right or wrong,” Mel told the packed church, “it is what it is . . . At the end of the day, he didn’t regret it. He did what he believed in, what he felt was right.
“But be under no illusion, he was a committed republican right up until his last breath, an unapologetic republican.
“There is no apology. God bless the Republic. God bless Ireland,” he said to loud applause.