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14 July 2021

When statues fall

What our long history of toppling monuments tells us about our divisive relationship with the past 

By Fintan Oâ?TToole

Near where I live in Dublin is the Trinity comprehensive school in the working-class suburb of Ballymun. At its entrance stands an equestrian statue, more than twice life-size. The bareback rider is clearly contemporary: a teenage girl in a hoodie, jeans and trainers. But the horse, highly stylised and heroic, seems to belong to the 19th century, with its flowing mane, flared nostrils, bowed head and balletically poised right foreleg. You don’t have to know anything about the history of the statue to see at once that it is a reoccupation and repurposing of a very particular tradition of public memorials to great men.

But the history is nonetheless worth knowing. The artist, John Byrne, fashioned the horse from a mould he took of a statue of the Victorian general Field Marshal Hugh Viscount Gough that now stands in the grounds of Chillingham Castle, Northumberland. But until 1957, when it was thrown off its plinth by explosives set by the IRA, it was in the Phoenix Park in Dublin.

[see also: The return of the Celts]

An earlier IRA attack had succeeded only in blowing off the unfortunate animal’s right hind leg. In Dublin this act of violent iconoclasm was the subject of a gleeful derision that encompassed both the statue and its attackers. The accepted story was that the brunt of the blast had been borne by the horse’s large penis. Almost everyone knew a glorious bit of doggerel, written by Vincent Caprani though widely attributed to Brendan Behan, that memorialised the attack in mock heroic verse:

’Neath the horse’s big prick a dynamite                 stick Some gallant hero did place, For the cause of our land, with a match in his hand Bravely the foe he did face

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The gelded horse and insulted rider were allowed to rest quietly in storage for 30 years in Dublin until they were eventually removed to England, restored and, in 1990, re-erected at Chillingham. But in fact the horse had another parallel, almost equally peripatetic, life.

The sculptor John Henry Foley made it from a cast that he had created for a celebrated equestrian statue in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) of another hero of the Raj, Viscount Hardinge. That monument was itself repatriated to Penshurst in Kent in 1950, after Indian independence. So this is a well-travelled beast. It has moved in different forms from Kolkata to Dublin, to Penshurst, to Chillingham, and back to a comprehensive in Ballymun. Each time it has been repurposed, resited, reimagined.


In her timely, richly informative and entertaining canter through the fates of a dozen memorials to great men, Alex von Tunzelmann, author of previous books on the Suez Crisis and the British Raj, quotes the Austro-Hungarian novelist Robert Musil: “There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.” And perhaps nothing less fixed. Poor old Gough is now too obscure to earn a place among her icons, but his inability to rest in peace has a peculiar poignancy.

On the first page of his autobiography My Early Life, Winston Churchill records his “first coherent memory”:

I remember my grandfather, the Viceroy, unveiling the Lord Gough statue in 1878. A great black crowd, scarlet soldiers on horseback, strings pulling away a brown shiny sheet, the old Duke, the formidable grandpapa, talking loudly to the crowd. I recall even a phrase he used: “and with a withering volley he shattered the enemy’s line”. I quite understood that he was speaking about war and fighting and that a “volley” meant what the black-coated soldiers (Riflemen) used to do with loud bangs so often in the Phoenix Park where I was taken for my morning walks.

This moment in Dublin impressed itself on Churchill’s childhood memory because it was accompanied by a display of military power and because of its explicit association with violence. That withering volley evoked by his grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, was probably unleashed against the Sikh army Gough most famously defeated at Gujrat in 1849. The unveiling of the statue by Churchill’s grandfather was also a statement of Ireland’s secure place within the United Kingdom – Gough was the sort of Irishman who could be trusted to play a leading part in the imperial project. For the young Churchill, the statue must have symbolised not just the permanence of Gough’s place in history but the stability of the world in which he rose to fame. And yet Churchill lived to see not just Gough blown off his pedestal but both Ireland and India freed from the grip of the empire he adored.

[see also: How the Second World War was won]

In his classic account of the Iranian revolution, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski reproduces a newspaper interview with a man who pulled down statues of the shahs in 1941, 1953 and 1979. It was a family craft – he learned it from his father. He made the point that the best time to plan the fall of a monument was when it was being erected: “That was the best chance to get a good look and see how it was built, whether the figure was hollow or solid, and, most important, how it was attached to the pedestal and how it was reinforced.” In the monument’s beginning was its end.

There is, in other words, a profound futility embodied in the erection of sculpted icons of a nation’s heroes and (very rarely) heroines. The gesture seeks to defy time and change. It came naturally to empire-builders because it is itself a form of annexation, a territorial claim on the future. It issues an instruction to generations as yet unborn: you will admire this person who embodies our values. The problem is that those generations may not agree. Posterity can prove itself a most ungrateful recipient of our gifts. As the 18th-century Irish politician Sir Boyle Roche asked: “Why should we put ourselves out of the way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?”

In this regard, attacks on statues are a kind of backhanded compliment. They suggest that the person whose image is being assaulted still matters. They make him visible in the present. They rescue him, however briefly, from the general fate of those so memorialised, which is oblivion. How many of us had heard of Edward Colston before the agitation to remove his statue from Bristol gathered force?

The truth about the tumbling of statues is that almost everyone agrees with it, sometimes. It just depends on who the idol represents. We have yet to hear a right-wing culture warrior decry the toppling – organised by the US army – of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad in 2003 as a crime against history. I do not recall that when the statue of the grisly Bolshevik secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky was pulled down in Moscow in 1991, Boris Johnson wrote or said anything like, “Those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.” He saved his tears for the fate of the slave-trader Colston. Who demands that the thousands of Stalins and Lenins be put back on their pedestals in Budapest or Kyiv? Or, come to think of it, that Jimmy Savile be restored to his plinth in the foyer of Scotstoun Leisure Centre in Glasgow, from which he was hurriedly removed in 2012.

The Tory government’s current proposal to impose penalties of up to ten years in prison for causing damage to any “memorial” defines the crime as “the desecration of war memorials and other statues”. (It also includes damage to flowers placed on any commemorative structure.) Desecration is, of course, a religious term, meaning the violation of a sacred place or object. But holiness is in the eye of the beholder. Tyrants and butchers make themselves into objects of devotion and their followers into true believers. Stalin was undoubtedly worshipped. By this criterion, those who took out their rage on him after the fall of the Berlin Wall were criminals. So, presumably, were the American soldiers who desecrated Saddam, another figure who created his own cult, and whoever it was that managed to destroy every one of the Nazi memorials in Germany.

Stalin, Lenin and Saddam are among Von Tunzelmann’s dozen examples. Some of the others are well known from recent controversies: Colston in Bristol, Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Oxford, Robert E Lee in New Orleans, George Washington in Portland, Oregon. She gives smart and succinct accounts of these controversies and the historical realities that lie behind them. But the most interesting chapters deal with less obvious examples, beginning with the tearing down in July 1776 of the statue of George III, cast in gilded lead, that stood on Bowling Green in New York. Strikingly, because of previous attempts to attack it, an “anti-desecration law” had been passed in 1773 to punish anyone defacing the king’s image.

Rather deliciously, Von Tunzelmann points out that when British forces occupied the city in September, they took their revenge through another act of iconoclasm: “Their target was Joseph Wilton’s white marble statue of William Pitt, friend to the colonists, which stood on Wall Street. Soon after they occupied the city, British forces beheaded it and ripped off its arms.”


Perhaps the most startling of her tales is the account of the mania for self-aggrandising erections of the hideous dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. By the time of his death in 1961, there were 1,800 statues and busts of him, one for every 27 square kilometres of the country. Some of them were literal phallic symbols: a towering white obelisk was, as Trujillo’s vice-president explained, a tribute to the leader’s “superior natural gifts”. In 1997 a Dominican artist painted it with the images of the three Mirabal sisters, murdered by Trujillo for their resistance to his brutal regime. Monuments do not always have to be destroyed – they can sometimes be recycled for very different purposes.

The larger point of Von Tunzelmann’s vibrant tour across 350 years and five continents is to take on the four big rhetorical tropes of the culture warriors. The first is that removing statues “erases history” or, as Johnson has it, seeks to “censor our past”. This is nonsense. Do Germans know less about Hitler because the Nazi monuments were torn down? Statues have virtually no educative value in themselves. All they tell us is what some men with power and money valued at a particular time, and there is no shortage of sources for the views and feelings of men with power and money. On the contrary, it is the debate about the appropriateness of the images that seek to dominate our public spaces that makes history resonant.

The second device is the “man of his time” gambit. It is both tautologous (Colston was of his time; aren’t we all?) and obscurantist. It actually denies historical context by suggesting that “everybody” thought as Colston did about slavery (including the slaves?) or that the vile Leopold II of Belgium whose monument in Brussels is now regularly attacked, was not widely condemned as a criminal in his own time.

Another argument is the slippery slope – where will it all stop? Von Tunzelmann’s reply is that it won’t, and shouldn’t: “In a free democratic society, there can be no limits on which historical figures can be discussed and reassessed.” She might have added that if there is a slippery slope, we have been tumbling down it for millennia – whoever broke the first icon must be to blame.

The trickiest question is that of “law and order”. Who gets to decide which statues are still valued and which should go? The only real solution is a continuing democratic process of engagement with the people who have to live with these images. One might add that genuine consultation could have the considerable aesthetic benefits of filtering out kitsch like the new Diana statue at Kensington Palace. It might also allow people to come up with creative ways of reinterpreting statues to give them new meanings. Every time I pass that school in Ballymun, I salute the young woman in her hoodie and trainers – and the horse she rode in on.

Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History
Alex von Tunzelmann
Headline, 272pp, £20

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This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook