“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens . . . a time to tear down and a time to build.”
-Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 3
In the early morning of March 6, 1966, an explosion rocked O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare of Dublin. The target of the explosion—an act of destructive desecration or patriotic fervor, depending upon one’s point of view—was a 134-foot tall pillar, capped by a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, vice admiral of the British navy. The pillar stood in the center of O’Connell Street for over a century and a half, erected when Ireland was an unwilling, subjugated member of the United Kingdom. Significantly, it was erected shortly after an unsuccessful 1798 uprising against British domination, no doubt to intimidate the Irish with the overwhelming power of the Crown.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of Irish history knows that for centuries Ireland was subjected to British rule; it was not until 1949 that it achieved independence and was able to take its place among the nations of the world. But in spite of that independence, the monument to Lord Nelson, a symbol of British oppression, continued to maintain its position of prominence in the center of the capital, a daily reminder of the subjugation the Irish had fought so hard to overcome.
Not everyone in Dublin wanted the statue removed. It was, after all, quite monumental, an impressive piece of architecture and a landmark in the city. For many of the residents, it was a symbol of a painful past, but for others it was more of a cultural and historical tribute to the long, entangled Anglo/Irish heritage of Dublin. There were many who were content to let it stay, suggesting that those offended should just get over it. As it happened, “those offended” took matters into their own hands and brought the statue down in the dark of night. There were no casualties; pains were taken to ensure that its destruction would take place when the streets were empty. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime.
I remember reading about the event in the local Dallas press a day or two after it occurred. I was a college freshman at the time, and a self-taught student of history (and a person of Irish ancestry), so I rounded up my buddies for a night of celebration. Truth be told, my buddies were game to celebrate anything so long as it involved beer, and although most had never heard of Nelson’s pillar nor cared about its history, they readily joined me in an evening of revelry.
Nelson’s pillar had to go. Its presence in the middle of O’Connell Street was an affront to every Irish man and woman who had yearned for political freedom and basic civil and religious rights throughout the many centuries of British domination. Likewise, in our own country, the statues of Confederate generals and other monuments of the Confederacy must go; they too stand as insulting, intimidating reminders of oppression—of hundreds of years of slavery, lynchings, and segregation. Can a people truly be free when the symbols of their oppression are staring down at them daily in the centers of their towns?
My adopted city of Dallas, which has its own share of Confederate statues and other reminders of its segregated past, is responding to the challenge with commendable maturity and thoroughness. Through the leadership of a progressive mayor and city council, the remnants of our Confederate ties are being removed, carefully and without incident. The city appears to have come together as one and proclaimed an end to the memorializing of oppression, recognizing, quoting Ecclesiastes, that there is both a time to build and a time to tear down.