Dublin in Stone: An Irish story in memorials

The first time we came to Ireland four years ago, I was eager to fill little Erin’s head with Irish mythology and bought an illustrated book of Irish stories to read each night to her before she went to bed.  This was a book of Irish legend and lore, of heroes and struggles, the bedtime stories told to our ancestors.  I could hardly wait to dig in.  Quickly we realized these were no ordinary bedtime stories to fill young minds with hope and dreams as they fell asleep, these were tales that often ended tragically in death, mayhem, lost love, disappointment and despair; or as Erin became fond of saying, “they are Irish stories.”  There are few happy endings in Irish tales of myth and history.  Riding off in the sunset here can often get you burned…. So it has always been, and so it is with the memorials found around the town of Dublin.  These are not memorials to great conquerors of captains of industry as you might find in other cities, these are Irish memorials often remembering what many other societies would best leave forgotten, tales to be told that might otherwise be left unsaid.

Of course in the “land of poets and saints” you will find more than a few memorials to great authors such as James Joyce (although after reading his work, one might call him the most Irish of authors using Erin’s measure).


In several places in Dublin, you will also find memorials to people who lost everything;  who were homeless, destitute, starving and forced to leave this emerald isle as a result of the great famine in the 1840s.  In every one of these depictions the loyal dog is present and also hungry with head hung low as if to say that loyalty is the one thing they were left when all other things were stripped away.


There are statues not to statesman who changed the course of history with new systems of government, but of statesman such as Daniel O’Connell who fought valiantly (albeit largely unsuccessfully) on behalf of the marginalized, the poor, the disenfranchised Catholics of Ireland in the 19th Century.  He spoke up for the poor and now holds a position of high honor in perhaps the busiest of intersections in the city, even though his policy success legacy leaves much to be desired.  The people below him, largely peasants, represent the Irish people who remember far more of their oppression and lowliness in these monuments than of their triumphs.  Perhaps that is the Irish story once again, measuring success in determination and vision rather than pragmatic gains, wealth and power.


There are plenty of statues to rebels in this town, most of whom lost their struggle and died in English gaols (jails) as a result.  The US celebrates 1776 for the success of the American Revolution, the French celebrate 1789 for the changes that came about in the French Revolution, and the Irish celebrate 1798 in the defeat of the rebellion led by this man, Wolfe Tonne, who tried to achieve a new democratic society but met the gallows instead.


If at first you don’t succeed at revolution, try, try again.  In 1848 when the students and workers in Paris rose up to the call of Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto, the Irish too tried again to rise for freedom only to be overwhelmed by their British colonial rulers and hung for treason.  So, the Irish remember the efforts of such rebels as William Smith O’Brien with a memorial just outside the General Post Office in the center of Dublin.  His story did not end happily ever after, it ended in defeat and the end of an unforgiving rope.


Perhaps no date in Irish rebel history is more important than Easter 1916 when once again the Irish rose up to declare their independence.  Hanging on my office wall at CMU, I have the proclamation read by these rebels in front of the General Post Office on this very street.  There are literally thousands of memorials all over Ireland remembering this failed revolution and the dozens of leaders who were executed shortly after they were captured in the ensuing fight.  Although people were often indifferent to their cause while they were alive, in death they became martyrs of principle even if their plan to take over Dublin in rebellion were not terribly pragmatic.  One of my favorite heroes of the 1916 struggle was another champion of the poor long before the Easter Rising as it is known here.  James Connolly was a labor organizer who fought for the rights of the worker in Ireland.  Working with the rebels was the best chance to advance the rights of the working class in Ireland, so he joined the rebellion and paid with his life.  Behind him in this statue is the image of the plough and the stars (the Irish name for the Big Dipper constellation) symbolizing the dreams of the farmers and agricultural workers of Ireland.


It seems that revolution lingers around every corner in Dublin, it is in the air you breath and in the quotes you find on so many stone statues and pillars around the city.  It is firmly embedded in the Irish identity as it has been created in their myths, their stories and their stone memorials.  Sayings, such as this one in downtown Dublin, aptly capture the “fighting” spirit of the Irish who seem to identify with the underdog in any fight.


{Note: It has come to my attention that screen reader software and small phone screens will not be able to pick up on the text in these images so I will be rewriting them below in these brackets to improve accessibility.  This plaque is in several languages, in English it reads “The great appear great because we are on our knees:  Let us rise”}

Eventually the Irish gained their independence, but lest you think there is a happily ever after lurking somewhere, I remind you, dear reader…. this is an Irish story.  Workers continued to struggle for their rights even after political independence and the founding of the Irish Republic.  Although O’Connell and Connolly were no longer able to be a voice for the workers and the marginalized, the workers and the outcast found new champions in leaders such as Jim Larkin also given a place of prominence in the Dublin Pantheon of great underdogs and failed rebels.


Jim Larkin was a great orator (something highly valued in the Irish persona) who could fight for the little guy and rally the workers to give them hope.  My distant relation, Sean O’Casey described the audience, the method and the message aptly here.


{“…he talked to the workers, spoke only as Jim Larkin could speak, not for an assignation with peace, dark obedience or placid resignation; but trumpet-tounged of resistence to wrong, discontent with leering poverty, and defiance of any power strutting out to stand in the way of their march onward.” ~ Sean O’Casey}

Larkin was a contemporary rebel even in a time when the formal colonial powers were losing their grip on Ireland after hundreds of years of occupation.  He fought to correct the legacy of poverty left behind in their wake.


{And tyranny trampled them in Dublin’s gutter until Jim Larkin came along and cried the call of freedom and the call of pride and slavery crept to its hands and knees and nineteen thirteen cheered from out the utter degradation of their miseries. ~ Patrick Kavanagh}

Perhaps this is why it was so hard for the Irish to shake the rebel image after they gained independence.  It had too long been memorialized in poetry, song and stone.  It was and is part of a national identity.  So the struggle continued as the fight moved north to Belfast.  The IRA, formed by Michael Collins at the turn of the 20th century to fight the British, continued to fight after independence during the Irish Civil War that raged, and beyond.  Ireland has always been divided about the role of rebellion in their identity and many do not support Sinn Fein and the IRA, but they do remember the victims that have died as a result of the political struggle.  Even the sidewalks speak of a time of rebellion, and of suffering such as this tile remembering a bomb that killed so many innocent people in 1974.


{“In Remembrance. This stone marks the site where the second of three no warning car bomb explosions occurred on 17th of May 1974 in which 14 people including an unborn baby lost their lives.  Installed by Justice for the Forgotten.  May 2008”}

This year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Accords that was supposed to bring peace to Northern Ireland.  For the most part it did, but this is an Irish story and the walls are still there dividing Belfast and its people.

There is a lot of desire to move beyond the identity of rebel and tragic victim in the Irish identity, but the stones won’t let the city forget entirely.  Most people pass beyond the statues without a second thought to their significance, they have become part of the background noise of the cityscape; but just like those background songs during the Christmas shopping season, this background noise has a way of getting stuck in your head.  The rebel, the victim, the fight for justice especially for the marginalized remain a part of the Irish identity, because they remain a part of the Irish landscape and the memory it nurtures.  We are left with the words of the great north Dubliner, Bono, in the song “40”, “…..how long, to sing this song, how long, how long, how long, to sing this song.”

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I am a professor of Political Science at Colorado Mesa University on sabbatical in the fall semester 2018. I study public land policy and a wide variety of other subjects. Currently I am studying about European Landscape Policies while on sabbatical. That is the focus of this blog.

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