Eduard Krakhmalnikov describes the changing face of memorials in western Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries citing examples in counties Clare, Galway and Mayo
As markers of public memory, memorials are imbued with power and politics. The treatment of memorials, especially during times of historical re-alignment, often echoes reactions against or a renewed nostalgia for a former regime. For instance, in recent decades the overlap of monumentality and power can be witnessed by the iconoclasm following the fall of the Soviet Union. In Ireland there are several examples of similar, often violent, reactions. Nelson’s Pillar, built in 1809 to commemorate the war hero Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), stood towering over Dublin’s city centre. Seen as an imposing relic of the British Empire, the statue that topped the pillar was attacked twice: first in 1955 and again on the 8th of March, 1966, when the top half of the memorial was destroyed by a bomb. Nelson’s head, all that remains of the memorial, is now stored in the Dublin City Library and Archive. In 2003, the Spire of Dublin, a signal of Irish progress and aspirations, was built on the site of the destroyed memorial.
Also suggestive of the intrinsic link between memorials and power is the forced migration of the neo-Baroque statue of Queen Victoria that was originally unveiled on the lawn of Dublin’s Leinster House in 1908. The Oireachtas bought the mansion in 1924 and, in 1929, the first attempt was made to move the former regent from her watchful position in front of the new Irish parliament. The statue of Queen Victoria, the universal countenance of the British Empire, was quietly moved into storage in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in 1947 and was eventually shipped to Australia in the 1980s where it now stands in a square in front of the refurbished Queen Victoria Building, Sydney.
The study of memorials such as these can show us how, not just what, we collectively remember. Furthermore, how memorials change over time, how they have evolved and what they have evolved into, can elucidate the place of public memory within the contemporary condition. The following text will focus primarily on the transition of a single memorial form – the combination of Classical column, pedestal and statue – over time from the Imperial era to more recent years within counties Clare, Galway and Mayo in western Ireland.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, during the transitional socioeconomic shifts of industrialisation, memorials tended to be projected examples of model heroes and national icons. Symbolic statues stood on tall pedestals high above the passing crowds. In this way, public memory was not just centralised and officially sanctioned, but also a vigilant ideal to be constantly striven towards. Examples of such memorials include the Glendenning Monument (1845) in Westport, County Mayo (fig. 1), and the O’Connell Monument (1867) in Ennis, County Clare (fig. 2).
Around the turn of the century, a noticeable shift began to occur within the column-pedestal-statue memorial typology. While the statues may have often remained life-size, the height of the columns began to visibly shrink, less space separating the observer and the statue. Examples of these lowered memorials include the Manchester Martyrs’ Monument (1881) in Ennis (fig. 3) and the Humbert Memorial Monument (1898) in Ballina, County Mayo (figs. 4-5).
Following The Emergency, the space separating the observer and the statue on top of the Classical memorial became smaller still. While still above the pedestrian, the Joseph Howley Monument (1947) in Oranmore, County Galway (fig. 6), and the Liam Mellows Monument (1957) in Galway City (fig. 7) are approximately 3-4 metres tall while the John F. Kennedy Monument, also in Galway, is even shorter, with a profile bust below a commemorative plaque (fig. 8). As such they do not visually position public memory as a singular, imposing construction but rather as something that is slowly transitioning to be more on-the-ground, coming down from lonely heights into the complexity of the public’s everyday lived experience.
Finally, the memorial has, in the last few decades, shrunk almost beyond recognition. Often, instead of Classical forms, the memorial has become relegated to commemorative plaques, which, instead of a few large gestures, are numerous in number and are regularly placed at or below eye level. For example, according to the plaque database in A Guide to Cork City‘s Historic Plaques and Signs, there are 180 plaques in Cork alone. Sometimes, the memorial has even given up the ghost of a separate form and has simply become an inscription on the ground or wall. In this way, public memory has become less above us and more among us. Plaques and inscriptions, the offspring of the grand, triumphal memorials to public memory, are added to pre-existing structures that are thereby transformed into memorials while still retaining their unique functions. One such example is the Eugene O’Curry Monument (1986) in Doonaha, County Clare (fig. 9).
The transition of the column-pedestal-statue memorial from above and beyond the pedestrian’s vision and socioeconomic status to an existence amongst the passer-by may point to a gradual societal shift. The grand commanding figure of the Imperial era has become an anachronism: Nelson’s Pillar has long been destroyed; Queen Victoria has been shipped abroad; and Glendenning was replaced by Saint Patrick. Indeed, this transformation of the memorial mimics the movement from Imperial foreign rule to a contemporary democratic society where public memory is inscribed all around us, instead of centralised within dominant markers. As a result, the formal memorial has been disassembled and scattered into numerous commemorative plaques and inscriptions that, instead of stand-alone objects, are added on to pre-existing sites. As seen in Cork, the intensive and seemingly constant accumulation of plaques and inscriptions suggests a contemporary condition in which public memory is fragmented and reflective of fluctuating micro-narratives consistent with an evolving democracy instead of a dominant, Imperial hierarchy. It should be of note that the contemporary Spire of Dublin, three times the height of Nelson’s Pillar, is not made of stone or marble. Rather, it is covered with a reflective surface that mirrors our own image back onto ourselves, thereby transferring the power of projection onto the individual observer. Yet, as with Classical monuments that tend to lose significance with the passing of time, the number and similarity of plaques and inscriptions may lead us to seek out new, more interactive memorial types in the future. These future memorials may unglue themselves from form and place altogether, moving freely as stories and images through a hyper-reality no longer reliant on word of mouth. Unlike the stiffness of Classical notions, the definition of what a memorial is or can be will invariably change. As such, the conservation of future memorials, like the memorials themselves, will need to become a creative endeavour.
Eduard Krakhmalnikov recently completed an MS in Landscape Architecture and is currently completing an MS is Heritage Conservation and Preservation, both from the College of Design at the University of Minnesota in the United States. His thesis in landscape architecture focuses on memorial and memorialisation through the lens of a derelict, inaccessible slice of land on Chicago‘s waterfront long since dedicated as a public park. In the summer of 2012, he was the Inaugural Sally Boasberg Founder‘s Fellow at The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington DC. This Building of the Month was completed in the summer of 2013 during an international exchange internship funded through US/ICOMOSBack to Building of the Month Archive