Harry’s Dublin

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From top: The Wellington Monument/Testimonial with bas-reliefs at the foot of the obelisk made from brass cannons captured at Waterloo

The Wellington Testimonial.

Harry Writes:

When Dubliners mention “The Monument”, they are of course referring to the Wellington Testimonial or the Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park grounds beside Chesterfield Avenue. Arguably, both names for “The Monument” are correct as Sir Arthur Wellesley was very much alive when the construction work began but he was quite dead before it was completed. It was built between 1817 and 1861 to commemorate the victories of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

Arthur Wellesley was born in Ireland in 1769. His place of birth is disputed, being born either in Mornington House in Dublin (now the Merrion Hotel) or in the town of Trim, Co. Meath. Daniel O’Connell’s quote describing Wellesley’s Irishness as, “just because you are born in a stable does not make you a horse” is very true.

He was quintessentially a British warrior, statesman, imperialist and aristocrat. He never considered himself Irish, he was from Ireland, but he was not of Ireland. He was part of an Anglo-Irish caste whose first allegiance was to the British Crown. He described himself as part of the “English garrison” and Ireland “in a view to military operations must be considered enemy country”

There is no doubting his courage or military successes. He had an illustrious military career after joining the British army as an ensign in 1787. He seen his first action in Flanders in 1794 He then served in India from 1797 until 1805. After a number of victories enforcing British power in India, Wellesley returned to Ireland band became Chief Secretary in April 1807 until he resigned the post in April 1809. From 1808 until 1814, he led the British forces across Portugal, Spain and France, winning many crucial victories against France and earning him the titles of Viscount Wellington of Talavera and Duke of Wellington, from the British Crown.

On 18 June 1815, Wellington led the British and Allied forces to victory over the French in the decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo. Where “Napoleon met his Waterloo”. Wellington subsequently had a major political career becoming Prime Minister during the reign of George IV after being Commander in Chief of the British Army.

To commemorate “The Iron Duke”, Wellington’s military victories during the Peninsular War, a testimonial committee was formed in Dublin on July 20th, 1813, by the Earl of Roden. He first suggested his idea of a monument at, ‘a meeting of several noblemen and gentlemen of the Kingdom of Ireland’ at the Rotunda in Dublin on 20 July 1813. Wellington’s continuing military success and his major victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 meant continued public support from that echelon of society in raising the necessary funds for the building of a monument.

A competition was held and a large number of potential designs were submitted by artists from all over the United Kingdom. Seven of the designs were shortlisted for the Wellington Testimonial. Models of the designs were put on public display at the Dublin Society’s House on Hawkin’s Street. Eventually, Sir Robert Smirke (1781-1867), design for an obelisk was chosen, a notable architect, he designed many major public buildings, including the main block and facade of the British Museum.

Smirke’s obelisk is a fine imposing structure of 62 metres in height, built of crystalline Kilgobbin granite, tapering upwards consisting of a four-sided shaft with a pyramidal apex, on a three-stepped monumental pedestal. There were also plans for a large statue of Wellington on horseback, accompanied by guardian lions placed on individual pedestals, but eventually after construction began the lack of funds ruled that out.

On 18 June 1817, the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Whitworth, the Crown’s senior representative in Ireland, laid the foundation stone for the testimonial with much fanfare at a ceremony held for the purpose: “The Lord Lieutenant … was attended by several officers of distinction and an escort of dragoons … The ceremony was attended by a vast concourse of carriages, and of equestrian and pedestrian spectators; the day being particularly favourable there were exhibited considerable beauty, rank and fashion. … The Lancers made a beautiful and warlike appearance… After the ceremony of laying the stone, 21 rounds were fired.”

Around 1820, the British Government provided brass cannons captured at Waterloo. After they were melted, they were used to mould the 3-D style bas-reliefs around the base of the monument. If you take a walk around the monument, the bas-reliefs display vibrant images titled, the “Battle of Waterloo”, “Civil and Religious Liberty” and the third the “Indian Wars”. The fourth has an inscription, in Latin and English: –

“Asia and Europe, saved by thee, proclaim

Invincible in war thy deathless name

Now round thy brow the civic oak we twine

That every earthly glory may be thine.”

Support for building the monument had faded somewhat by the early 1820s and due to a lack of funding, it was finally completed in 1861, nine years after the duke’s death.

On completion not everyone enjoyed the artistic merits of the monument as this early exchange relates,

Mr. Osborne: “Anyone who has been in the Phoenix Park must have seen the gigantic Milestone which is placed there in defiance of all rules of art and taste…”

Lord Palmerston: “Upon matters of taste men ought to be permitted to differ…the Monument in the Phoenix Park is in good taste.”

Mr. Osborne: “The Noble Lord must be an admirer of Milestones” -(Commons Debates, 1860)

So, today “The Monument” is a feature of Dublin, it is the tallest stone obelisk in Europe and it stands proud dominating the skyline all around it. Whatever your views of Wellington, it is part of our history and well worth a visit the next time you are in the Phoenix Park.

Harry’s Dublin appears here every Friday.

All pics by Harry Warren

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20 thoughts on “Harry’s Dublin

  1. Nilbert

    Great stuff as always Harry,

    Known as ‘The Mollymount’ to a lot of native Dubliners, this place became very popular during the lockdown when travel was restricted. I took my own 10 year old son down for a climb. If you stand near the base and look at the top, the monument appears to be falling on top of you, great to see this phenomenon still terrifying kids today.

    I always wondered what the captions the side were, I assumed they are in Latin.

  2. perricrisptayto

    Manys the traipse up and down those steps as a nipper.
    Thanks for the memories Harry.

    1. Harry

      Hi perricrisptayto,

      I always wondered why the steps are at an angle guaranteed to make you slip :)

  3. Redundant Proofreaders Society

    Spent many summer days there at the Monument and the so-called ‘Slippy Steps’, on account of them being slanted, and slippery when wet. The base of the obelisk is higher than it looks, and it was pretty scary and bleak when perched up there, surrounded by depictions of bloody conquests which seemed so alien to an Irish person.

    Great to read the history of it – thanks Harry.

  4. Slightly Bemused

    I have to agree, this is wonderful.

    Thank you, Harry. I do really enjoy your series, and often they bring back memories.

    Not far from the monument is a small copse of trees. Our school, in coordination with the park rangers, did a fundraising drive for a tree planting. Several existing trees had become unsafe, and they wanted to replace them. If my memory is correct, we had no choice in the type or location of the trees, but it was a fun day out of the classroom.

  5. Janet, dreams of an alternate universe

    Do you know I have never taken a good look at this in real life ? Enjoyed that

  6. Papi

    Great read again, Harry, the Bernard Cornwell books are a cracking read too, very huzzah!

    1. Harry

      Hi Papi, he’s a good writer indeed, the Richard Sharpe ones are very “huzzah!” indeed :)

  7. Gearóid

    I read that the original design was quite a bit taller but they ran out of funds. The apex was supposed to have a much finer point.

    1. Harry

      Hi Gearóid, there were a fair few designs…Something I wondered about, the obelisk had to be the highest point in Dublin for many years and it has a lightening conductor all the way to the top.

      Has anyone ever heard of it been struck by lightening during a thunderstorm? I would love to see a photo of it if it ever happened?

  8. Cú Chulainn

    Great article again Harry.. a little quibble. Wellington was very proudly Irish and considered himself so. Yes he was Anglo-Irish, but so were Yeats, Parnell, Wilde, Shaw.. he kept a unit of Irish Catholic troops as his most trusted elite troops and was largely responsible for pushing Catholic Emancipation through parliament, when prime minister, in the face of hostile opposition. He made several impassioned speeches in support of catholic Irish and sought to end all prejudice against them. That he is not recognised here has more to do with what came after his time, and good old fashioned local begrudgery.

    1. Harry

      Thanks very much Cú Chulainn,

      No Quibble at all and I respect what you have to say. Everyone born on this island has a right to call themselves Irish and no one can deny it to them. Gaelic Ireland, Anglo Ireland and Ulster-Scottish/Scots-Irish Ireland are each as Irish as each other.

      Taking the contrarian position I don’t believe Wellington was “very proudly Irish” and I will leave that to his own words.

      Wellington denied his Irishness describing himself as being part of the “English garrison” and Ireland “in a view to military operations must be considered enemy country”

      In 1807 Wellington wrote in a letter to the Home Secretary Lord Hawkesbury: “I am positively convinced that no political measure which you could adopt would alter the temper of the people of this country. They are disaffected to the British Government; they don’t feel the benefits of their situation; attempts to render it better either do not reach their minds, or they are represented to them as additional injuries; and in fact we have no strength here but our army. Surely it is incumbent upon us to adopt every means which can secure the position and add to the strength of our army.”

      I will leave it to Wellington’s biographer Lawrence James… “Neither he nor his kin ever considered themselves as Irish. . .The Anglo-Irish aristocracy had nothing in common with the indigenous, Gaelic-speaking and Catholic Irish whom they despised and distrusted.”

      1. Cú Chulainn

        Hi ya Harry, thanks for your reply. I was brought up with exactly the same opinion as you have outlined. However, over the years I that view has broadened just a little.

        Judge a man by his deeds and not his words? On the Parnell monument (surely in line for one of your excellent posts) are those words that inspired Irish society –

        “but no man has the right to fix the boundary of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further”, and we have never attempted to fix the “ne plus ultra” to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood, and we never shall.”

        Missing from the start of the quote is the first sentence: ‘We cannot ask the British constitution for more than the restitution of Grattan’s parliament’.

        In short, and as outlined in a speech in the Commons the week previously, Parnell assured his colleagues that the great mass of the population in Ireland would not be getting a vote anytime soon. Some Catholic’s, but not all. The social contract of ownership and privilege would not be broken.

        Which brings me back to Wellington. Of course he was going to say anything to win, and he was a unionist. Anti-Irish and Catholic sentiments ran deep in Britain and he needed to pander to those prejudices to gain power.

        However, look at his deeds. He, didn’t need to bring forward and force through the Emancipation Act, but he did. He only got it through parliament by raising the spectre of civil war, which was a tad far fetched in any meaningful manner, but no one in those houses was going to argue with him on matters of war.

        Back in Ireland we celebrate O’Connell’s election in Clare as the victory, which of course it was, but we forget that Peel resigned his seat, as he felt honour bound because he changed his opinion, to run as pro emancipation in Oxford University, and lost. That’s an indication of how deep anti Irish Catholic sentiment ran.

        It was to Irish Catholic soldiers that “we all owe our proud pre-eminence in our military careers”. He declared to the Lords in 1828. Emancipation as payback? Perhaps.

        My point is only that if we move beyond just the words and look to the deeds a, somewhat though perhaps not entirely, different picture emerges.

  9. Mé Féin

    Shouldn’t that monument commemorate soldiers in the other armies he fought? Maturity and all that…

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