Nelson Pillar was a memorial dedicated to Horatio, Lord Nelson that stood in O’Connell Street in the heart of Dublin from 1808 to 1966.
Its construction actually predated the more famous Nelson’s Column, which is of a similar design and is located in Trafalgar Square in London.
The erection of a statue honouring Nelson and those who died at the Battle of Trafalgar, including a large number of Irish volunteers, was the idea of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, James Vance.
It was also seen as a celebration of the defeat of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions in Europe.
The cost of the Pillar was met by public subscription although, tellingly, it took two years for the sum of £5,000 to be met.
Initially, objections as to the Pillar revolved around aesthetic considerations, with many feeling that it’s disproportionate size overwhelmed the space around it.
Soon, people also came to see its location in the centre of O’Connell Street as a cause of traffic congestion.
After the Easter Rising of 1916 the arguments against the Pillar became even more focused.
Its location, overlooking the GPO which had been the headquarters of the Republican forces, was seen as an affront to those who had died.
The figure of an British war hero towering over such a potent symbol of Irish nationalism was just too much for some to bear.
In 1955 a group of students from University College Dublin occupied the Pillar and attempted to melt the statue of Nelson with homemade flamethrowers. Gardai attempted to arrest them but were dissuaded by sympathetic bystanders and the students were released without charge.
1966 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising and the debate over how appropriate it was for Nelson to be in such a prominent position in the middle of Dublin began again.
At 2 a.m. on March 8th 1966 a bomb destroyed the upper half of the Pillar, toppling the statue of Nelson and sending rubble into the street below.
Despite the force of the explosion there were no injuries and the only damage was to one window of a nearby taxi.
Two days later, engineers from the Irish Army demolished what was left of the Pillar in a controlled explosion.
This blast caused most of the windows on O’Connell Street to be broken and left the city with a massive list of claims for compensation.
Within a week of the explosion a song called ‘Up Went Nelson’ by the Go Lucky Four was at the top of the Irish music charts.
Joe Dolan also wrote a song called ‘Nelson’s Farewell’ about the incident which The Dubliners recorded for their 1966 album ‘Finnegan Wakes’.
The head of Nelson was stored in a warehouse in Clanbrassil Street but was stolen by students from the National College of Art and Design.
They attempted to demand a ransom for the head’s return to pay of their debts but when this was denied to them they instead hired out the head to various people.
They first received £200 from an antique dealer in London who displayed it in his window. Later, they rented it to the makers of a women’s stocking commercial and loaned it to The Dubliners for a show at the Olympia Theatre.
Ronnie Drew, one of The Dubliners later recalled that the crowd were sceptical that the head was genuine until another member of the band, Luke Kelly, took a run up and kicked the head to prove its solidity.
The students eventually returned the head to the Lady Nelson of the day and it can now be seen in the Gilbert Library in Pearse Street, Dublin.