Battle of Waterloo, Part II: Should Wellington's Figure Tower over an Irish Town?

By David McKittrick Ireland Correspondent | The Independent (London, England), August 26, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Battle of Waterloo, Part II: Should Wellington's Figure Tower over an Irish Town?


David McKittrick Ireland Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)


BATTLE WAS joined with an outraged letter to The Irish Times from an American visitor, full of indignation over the figure on the tall column in the town of Trim in Co Meath.

The letter writer discovered the imperious likeness, 75ft in the sky, was that of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo in 1815. "I was greatly amazed," wrote the visitor, who described himself as a student of Irish history. He called on the Irish "to remove this reactionary figure and replace him with a son or daughter of your own country".

The ensuing spirited correspondence has illuminated Irish views of history and of the country's relations with the old colonial power. In a country so devoted to history it has afforded a telling glimpse of Irish mindsets. The original protest was supported by a west Belfast woman who wrote: "As a northern nationalist, I was appalled to see the imposing statue." She questioned whether locals wanted "such a pompous bigot each day on their horizon".

The 8,000-strong population of Trim, 25 miles north of Dublin, is 95 per cent Catholic. But even some of the majority defended the Protestant Duke. Peter Clancy responded to the American: "As a native of Trim and a Catholic Irishman, it is insulting that he feels we should want the statue torn down." In further exchanges, correspondents said a far larger memorial was in Phoenix Park, Dublin, embellished with bronze plaques cast from cannon captured at Waterloo. James Joyce in Finnegans Wake refers to the "Willingdone marmorial".

Although this granite obelisk is, at 205ft, the largest in Europe, it excites little comment. A statue of Nelson, which stood in O'Connell Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare, was dynamited in 1966. Yet the obelisk has not been attacked, apart from the person who has scrawled "Tracy loves Joe" on one of its massive flanks. One local man said: "I've yet to hear anyone making derogatory comments about it. People think it's a very fine structure.

"Anyway, Wellington is not regarded as a typical British villain. But, sure, look at the size of it; Nelson's Pillar was hollow but this one is solid stone. You'd need truckloads of explosive to blow that one up."

In the letter columns, the writers continued to attack and counter-attack: it was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, hard pounding. Wellington was not a bigot, one writer said: he disapproved of the Orange Order and showed, for his day, considerable religious tolerance. But another complained that Ireland "is awash with colonial hangovers".

In British and European history, Wellington was a colossal figure, one of the greatest military commanders and Prime Minister, revered in Britain as among the greatest national heroes. As the Phoenix Park monument declares: "Asia and Europe, saved by thee, proclaim

Invincible in war thy deathless name".

Although Wellington is regarded as a quintessentially British warrior, statesman and aristocrat, he was an Irishman born and bred. This explains why he was placed up there in the sky in Trim. The present debate is over his particular brand of Irishness.

He was born in what is now the Irish Republic, and brought up on the family estate in Meath. He was for years a councillor, attending meetings in Trim, where his signature can be seen on the corporation minutes. He was also MP for Trim in the Irish parliament, and later helped to run Ireland as Chief Secretary. Before going to Eton he was educated in Trim, as well as attending a French military academy whose register described him as a gentilhomme Irlandais.

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