By Thomas Myler
It was a Tuesday in Dublin like any other Tuesday in Dublin. I parked my car as usual in Dominick Street in the city centre in the days before parking meters, walked across Parnell Street, down Moore Street, past the dealers and the flower sellers.
I then turned into Henry Street to cross the road heading for the Woolworth Arcade, now the GPO Arcade which would bring me into Independent Newspapers where I worked.
Glancing up to O’Connell Street I couldn’t believe my eyes. To my astonishment I saw what was left of the famous Nelson Pillar, known to Dubliners as Nelson’s Pillar, a landmark in the city centre for over 150 years.
A powerful explosion just after 5.30 am had destroyed half the old monument and brought it crashing to the ground amid tons of rubble, sending large clouds of dust into the night sky. All that was left was a jagged stump 70 feet (21 meters) high. Dear old Horatio. Proud Admiral of the fleet in the days of yore was no more. Blown from his lofty perch 130 feet (39 meters) above ground level, his head in the rubble. Finito. Kaput. The end.
Luckily there were no casualties. The street was virtually deserted at the time, although a dance in the nearby Metropole Ballroom was nearing its end and would send patrons spilling onto the street. A taxi driver close by had a narrow escape.
Damage to property to minimal, given the powerful strength of the blast. It is hard to imagine that it all happened over 50 years ago – March 8th, 1966, to be exact. It almost seems like yesterday.
Responsibility immediately fell to the IRA but they formally denied responsibility. They issued a statement stating that they had no interest in demolishing mere symbols of foreign domination. A spokesman said, “We are only interested in the destruction of the domination itself.”
In the absence of any new leads, rumours had it that ETA, the Basque separatist movement in Spain, might be responsible, perhaps as part of a training exercise with an Irish splinter group.
The incident was moreorless forgotten and relegated to history until March 2000 when, during an interview on RTE radio, a die-hard republican named Liam Sutcliffe claimed he had set up and placed the bomb that detonated the monument.
Sutcliffe was associated with a group of dissident volunteers led by Joe Christle, a qualified barrister and champion cyclist who had been expelled from the IRA in 1956 for what was described as ‘recklessness’.
In early 1966, Sutcliffe said he learned that Christle’s organisation was planning Operation Humpty Dumpty, the code name for an attack on the Pillar, and offered his services.
Sutcliffe said he put his plan into operation on February 28th by placing a bomb inside the Pillar, timed to go off in the early hours of the next morning. It failed to detonate.
He said he returned early the next morning, recovered the device, redesigned its timer and planned a new date for the blast.
On March 7th shortly before the Pillar closed for the day, he climbed the inner stairway and placed the refurbished bomb near to the top before going home.
Sutcliffe recalled he learned of his successful mission the next morning, having slept peacefully throughout the night.
He was later questioned by the gardaí but not charged. He did not name others involved in the operation, apart from the Christle brothers, Joe and Mick.
“Different generations thought about it over the years and made plans but nothing ever happened,” he said. “The only reason we blew it up was to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.”
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