JIM REES recalls the efforts to remove the statue of Queen Victoria from the grounds of Leinster House, home to the new Dáil Éireann

Every nation has its symbols. The French have the fleur-de-lis, the Canadians the maple leaf, and so on. We have the harp, shamrock, round towers and wolfhounds. We all have our own flags, each with its distinct origin and meaning. Postage stamps, coinage, visual art and music are also icons of a shared identity.

Unfortunately, sometimes these icons clash, particularly when one nation has subjugated another for many years. In such cases, images are not reminders of healthy cultural difference, they are icons of political oppression and are often removed.

So what has prompted this observation?

In February 1948, a statue was removed from what is now the plinth in front of Leinster House in Dublin’s Kildare Street. There was general agreement to its removal, but there were those who regarded it as the tantrum of a spoiled child, the act of a new nation yet to reach maturity.

That statue was a massive image of Britain’s Queen Victoria, and its story begins in 1908.

Victoria reigned from 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901 and during that long period she visited Ireland four times – 1849, 1853, 1861, and 1900, just eight months before her death.

That last visit split the Irish people into four segments: those who wholeheartedly supported it as good British citizens; those who equally wholeheartedly opposed it as Irish nationalists; those who couldn’t be bothered one way or the other; and those who normally turned up at any birth, wedding or wake.

In 1902, the Irish sculptor John Hughes was commissioned to create a statue of the late queen for prominent display in Dublin. Hughes had already established an enviable reputation as an artist and his image of Victoria was to be arguably his masterpiece.

For some reason, almost six years were to pass before it was placed in front of Leinster House, then home of the Royal Dublin Society, flanked by the National Library and the National Museum.

Finally, on 17 February, 1908, the unveiling took place, performed by the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. About 1,000 troops were in attendance, either to add pomp and ceremony to the occasion or to quell any political demonstration. Probably a bit of both.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own