The most famous monument to Admiral Horatio Nelson is the 169ft column erected in London's Trafalgar Square in 1840, but Dublin had its own column (Nelson's Pillar) more than 30 years earlier. Slightly shorter but no less imposing, it stood in the middle of O'Connell Street and drew its fair share of controversy, particularly after the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1938 a failed attempt was made by Irish nationalists to blow it up; in 1966, 50 years ago this week, another attempt succeeded.
"Operation Humpty Dumpty" left Nelson's Pillar some 50ft shorter, and two days later, what was left of the monument was demolished, with Nelson himself placed in a Dublin Corporation lockup on Clanbrassil Street. But he didn't stay there for long.
Suffused with the spirit of rag week, a group of students at the National College of Art and Design liberated Nelson's head and, after sending a few pounds to the Dublin Corporation to pay for the damage they'd caused, set about using it to pay off Student Union debts.
Over the next six months, the head went on an unusual journey. It was photographed on Killiney beach as part of a fashion shoot for the Evening Press, appeared on stage with the Dubliners, and eventually ended up in London, where the antiques dealer Benny Gray paid the students £200 a month to display it in his shop window. It finally returned to Dublin that September, when Gray arrived on O'Connell Street with the head.
After asking the crowd if anyone could accept it on behalf of the Corporation, an official eventually came forward. "After all the moaning," Gray told the press, "no one seemed to want it when we brought it back." Today, the head sits quietly in the Dublin City Library.
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