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Body of evidence: a history of Irish iconoclasm

Iconoclasm has played a significant role in Irish history but should not be a part of its future



Source: Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos

Members of Sinn Féin repaint the slogan on the wall at Free Derry Corner in 1979, 10 years after it had first appeared. The wall marked the start of a no-go area that existed from 1969 to 1972. The surrounding houses have since been demolished but the wall itself remains, standing as a monument to that period in the country’s history

Whether myth or fact, who we are is predicated on where we are. Growing up in Ireland, at school we were taught across many subjects, from history to religious studies, that ours was the fabled ‘land of saints and scholars’. It was a legend often articulated in architecture, from the edge-of-the-world monastic beehive cells of Skellig Michael to the medieval round towers where monks supposedly sought sanctuary from marauding Viking raiders. Ireland, we were told with questionable patriotic zeal, had ‘saved civilisation during the Dark Ages’. Ours was a nation of iconographers, a view that could be deciphered not just in the Book of Kells, but also in the built environment.

It was evident, however, even as a child, that Ireland was also a nation of iconoclasts. Despite what we were taught, there was no single definitive lineage of Irish history or architecture. In the north especially, the most pronounced architecture belonged to two strands: the ecclesiastical and the colonial, Rome and London, spires and watchtowers. In the shadows of such structures, people tried to live as independently as they could. There were other forms of architecture of course, from Neolithic forts to grand Palladian houses, thatched cottages to Georgian townhouses – yet these too were simplified into binaries that conceal histories that are much more complicated.

‘Iconoclasm may even aid those who would benefit from cultural amnesia, under the guise of moving on’

On the facade of the General Post Office (GPO) in central Dublin, there are still bullet holes from the Easter Rising, the uprising against the British administration during which the eventual Republic of Ireland was proclaimed. The building itself is still a functioning post office as well as a sacred site for Irish nationalists and republicans (even if the famous bullet holes are disputed by the national post service, An Post). Further along O’Connell Street stands the steel needle of the Spire, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects, which rises 120 metres above the city. Aside from its engineering and conspicuous lack of purpose, the most interesting aspect to this minimalist ‘monument of light’ is that it marks an absence – until 1966, Nelson’s Pillar stood on the site. Featuring in the Aeolus section of James Joyce’s Ulysses – as a viewing platform and point of convergence simultaneously – it was also a symbol of power and submission. Accordingly, on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, it was blown up by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The revered GPO and the derided Nelson’s Pillar became, as architecture does in turbulent times, political theatres.

The felling of Nelson’s Pillar was merely one incident in centuries of culture wars. Before the pillar itself was erected, it had been the site of a statue of the Irish-born British war veteran, baron and mp William Blakeney, which was regularly defiled and eventually scrapped. Sometimes there was a carnivalesque atmosphere to the subversion: in 1922, a mob uprooted a statue of Lord Dunkellin, a peer from the reviled Anglo-Irish landowner class, then dragged it through the streets of Galway, cheering and playing traditional music as they did so. The statue was then thrown off the pier into the sea with the words, ‘Let it go boys and may the devil and all rotten landlordism go with it’. It sank to the tune of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.

When conflict escalated, so too did iconoclasm. During the Irish Civil War (1922-23), the Boyne Obelisk – celebrating Protestant William of Orange’s victory over Catholic James II – was blown up. While this might seem a clear act of the underdog striking the overlord, the act was also one of obfuscation. At that time, republicans were waging war not on the British but on each other. And if there is any act that was symbolic of the brutal schism of the Civil War and its terrible cost, it was the shelling and burning in 1922 of the rebel-held Four Courts in Dublin, destroying centuries of records within. A complicated, painful and largely unreconciled episode in Irish history was covered up by the rebuilding of the Four Courts the following decade. Reconstruction can be just as much a form of erasure as can destruction.

Iconoclasm is understandable when faced with symbols associated with injustice but, while ditching statues into the ‘dustbin of history’ can be tempting, it is also the erasing of evidence – not just of horrors, but also, crucially, the sanitisation of horrors and the canonisation of the perpetrators. This may even aid those who would benefit from cultural amnesia, under the guise of ‘moving on’. One pertinent example of a failure to adequately remember has been the Irish border issue. Here, the complete dismantling of security checkpoints and watchtowers from ‘the bad old days’ has allowed pro-Brexit parties to claim there’d never been a hard border between north and south, despite the fact that the memory of dystopian and divisive security infrastructure looms ominously in the minds of many who lived through it. The psychological impact of this cannot be underestimated. The burying of unreconciled traumatic memories seems an unwise and desperate course of action for an individual; for an entire society, the shunning of a painful but cathartic truth and reconciliation process is a recipe for disaster.

As custodians of what is meaningful in architecture and history, we are also indebted to pass on knowledge of what was ignoble. ‘This happened’ is one of the few tools we have to ensure ‘this can never happen again’ and to prevent those who would rewrite and airbrush history to allow such repetitions; as Orwell put it in 1984 with the Party’s slogan: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; and he who controls the present controls the past’.

‘Buildings have played an integral part in Ireland’s various waves of conflict. As repositories of identity and memory, they are crucial and vulnerable’

Bemoaning the demolition of architecture might seem superfluous compared with the lives lost in violence – yet buildings have played an integral part in Ireland’s various waves of conflict. As repositories of identity and memory, they are crucial and vulnerable. As symbols of power (and tyranny), they are also the focal point of resistance. The roots of the Troubles in the north are long and complex, but there was a central architectural factor: Catholic families were denied housing through sectarian allocation (my father’s family, for example, grew up squatting in a slum called Springtown Camp, a decaying Second World War military base near Derry, until the late 1960s), while over 1,500 Catholic families who did have homes, largely in Belfast, were burned or forced out in pogroms in 1969 (over 300 Protestant families suffered the same fate).

Unsurprisingly, buildings and monuments were utilised and targeted by both sides when divisions erupted into full-blown conflict. During the Battle of the Bogside in Derry in 1969, young rioters took over the roofs of the housing blocks of the Rossville Flats, occupying the vantage point with petrol bombs and rocks. Three years later, the Bloody Sunday massacre of 14 civilians (13 died immediately, one died months later) by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment took place in the shadow of the Modernist tower block. The killings happened not far from Free Derry Corner, marked by the famous graffiti on the gable wall of a now-demolished terrace. Free Derry was effectively a semi-autonomous ‘no-go’ area run by the community and local republicans in the Bogside and Creggan as a mini-republic in defiance of the UK. Repeated attempts were made by the military to demolish Free Derry Corner, including driving an armoured vehicle into it, given it was a symbol of defiance and sovereignty. They ended in failure but, as Seamus Heaney recalled in the poem Casualty, they did reply with their own graffiti: ‘PARAS THIRTEEN, BOGSIDE NIL’. The battles of signs have continued ever since and are evident still in the urban fabric. In Drumahoe, the last predominantly unionist village before you reach Derry from Belfast, they still fly Parachute Regiment flags from the lampposts alongside loyalist paramilitary flags. On the Derry Walls, the base of Walker’s Pillar remains, recalling the triumphalist loyalist symbol that once towered over the Bogside, clutching a sword and Bible; the plaque and the empty plinth also memorialise the night, a year after Bloody Sunday, when the IRA collapsed the monument with explosives.

‘There is often a lot of well-meaning talk of the plurality of the future in Ireland – we have always been plural and we have always been worthy of new, innumerable icons beyond the watchtower and the church spire’

The IRA’s 1970s bombing campaign in city centres was devastating financially but also, more importantly, in terms of the shoppers it blew to pieces (during Bloody Friday alone, 22 bombs were detonated in Belfast in under two hours). Loyalists targeted not just nationalist icons but nationalist people, drinking in pubs and betting in bookmakers. The names of individual buildings became synonymous with horror – McGurk’s Bar, the Balmoral Furniture Company showroom, the Droppin Well, Coshquin checkpoint, The Rising Sun, La Mon House hotel and restaurant. The names of these places entered the daily lexicon and the dreams and nightmares of people in the province. Again, fear took a spatial form: in daily life, individuals had to be able to tell where was safe and unsafe by reading the signs in the urban fabric – murals of the ‘other side’ on gable walls, flags on lampposts, painted kerbstones.

The hope is that the days of iconoclasm have passed. This might be bolstered by recognising other sidelined pasts, beyond the binaries – the fact, for example, that firefighters from the south travelled over the border to rescue buildings and citizens during the Belfast Blitz by the Luftwaffe in 1941. There must be a recognition of the fact that the island’s collective history is not one of clear-cut oppositions but far more complex, contradictory and nuanced. Consider the fact that unionist icons like the Apprentice Boys of Derry were rebels rising against an unjust British king or that founding Irish republican icons such as Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen were largely Protestant radicals. This works similarly for architecture.

When Nelson’s Pillar was being considered for demolition, WB Yeats, the poet and republican, wisely suggested: ‘If another suitable site can be found, Nelson’s Pillar should not be broken up. It represents the feeling of Protestant Ireland for a man who helped to break the power of Napoleon. The life and work of the people who built it are part of our tradition. I think we should accept the whole part of this nation and not pick and choose’. There is often a lot of well-meaning talk of the plurality of the future in Ireland but it is not so much an aspiration as, finally, an honest representation that we have always been plural and we have always been worthy of new, innumerable icons beyond the watchtower and the church spire.

Der2618 174km flags

Der2618 174km flags

Source: Courtesy of Derry Journal

Routes into Derry are adorned with unionist flags and kerbs painted in the colours of the Union Jack, as can be seen here at Caw Roundabout. Police have reported concerns being raised over the increase in this practice, which Catholics find intimidating

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today