Nelson's pillar

In Brief

"Nelson's pillar" was an immense monument to Admiral Horatio Nelson in the middle of Sackville (or O'Connell) Street in the heart of downtown Dublin. Appearing first in Hades as the funeral cortège rolls by, it then figures prominently in Aeolus as the central dispatch point for Dublin's trams, and as the setting for Stephen's Parable of the Plums.

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Nelson's pillar was the originating point for most of Dublin's trams. From this hub, tramlines radiated in all directions (but especially south and southeast) to the city's suburbs. The destinations that the "timekeeper" bawls out at the beginning of Aeolus are mostly in the prosperous southern suburbs, but, as illustrated here by pages reproduced from a schedule, tramlines also ran west to such destinations as Palmerstown Park (which is among the names called out), Inchicore, Park Gate, and Phoenix Park, east to the poor suburb of Ringsend (also mentioned), north to Glasnevin and Drumcondra, and northeast to Dollymount and the poor inner-city distrinct of Ballybough.

In Hades, the pillar is one of a number of sights that register in the narrative as the funeral carriages roll north on Sackville Street: Elvery's, statues commemorating Daniel O'Connell, Sir John Gray, and Father Mathew, and the Rotunda. All but O'Connell's statue appear again in Sirens, as Blazes Boylan retraces Bloom's path, rolling north on Sackville Street in a jaunting car toward his appointment with Molly.

In February 1808, several decades before Nelson's Column was erected in Trafalgar Square in London, work began on a foundation stone for the pillar in central Dublin, smack in the middle of Sackville Street. By late 1809 an immense granite Doric column had been constructed on the foundation, topped with a statue of Lord Nelson carved in Portland limestone by the Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk. The column enclosed 168 stone stairs spiraling to the top, which afforded an impressive view of greater Dublin to those willing to pay the entrance price. When the second photo of the pillar reproduced here is expanded, the iron railing that protected visitors who climbed up for the view can be seen below the statue.

All the traffic from people catching trams to various parts of the city, or coming to enter the momument, made the pillar's base a natural spot for sellers to hawk flowers and food. As Paddy Dignam's funeral procession passes by the pillar in Hades, a girl is selling plums to tourists and locals coming to take in the view: "—Eight plums a penny! Eight for a penny!" Stephen takes these calls as the inspiration for his narrative vignette in the next chapter. His two elderly vestals, Florence MacCabe and Anne Kearns, "want to see the views of Dublin from the top of Nelson's pillar." They buy bread and pressed meat, plus "four and twenty ripe plums from a girl at the foot of Nelson's pillar," pay threepence each for admission to the staircase, and "begin to waddle slowly up the winding staircase," exclaiming wearily at the distance and "peeping at the airslits." On the platform at the top of the stairs they eat their lunch, and then "go nearer to the railings" for the dizzying view: "Rathmines' blue dome, Adam and Eve's, saint Laurence O'Toole's."

Nelson's statue and the top half of the pillar were crudely demolished by IRA explosives in March 1966, in what is generally supposed to have marked a 50-year commemoration of the Easter Rising which began less than a block away, at the General Post Office. Today, the modernist Spire of Dublin rises from the spot on which the pillar once stood.

The IRA bombing may have inspired revenge attacks by loyalists in 1971. Their three bombings utterly destroyed a statue of Theobald Wolfe Tone and obliterated the staircase inside Daniel O'Connell's round tower, but left O'Connell's monument on O'Connell Street largely unscathed.

JH 2015
Photograph of trams crossing O'Connell Bridge. Sackville (O'Connell) Street lies beyond the bridge, with the O'Connell monument in the center of the photograph and Nelson's Pillar at the far left. Source: photograph held in the archives of the National Library of Ireland, reproduced in Cyril Pearl's Dublin in Bloomtime.
Symbols used for some of the different Dublin tramlines, as published in a timetable in 1910. Source: www.census.nationalarchives.ie.
Early 20th century photograph of the General Post Office (left) and Nelson's Pillar. Source: www.mixedmartialarts.com.
Flower sellers at the base of Nelson's Pillar, in a photograph taken ca. 1900. Source: www.census.nationalarchives.ie.