Opinion: not only do monuments represent a particular version of history, they also represent the power of that history and the fact that it is given prominence and authority

Next time you are walking across O’Connell Bridge in Dublin, look up and check if there is a seagull perched on top of the giant bronze statue of Daniel O’Connell, surveying the city from atop the sculpted bronze curls of The Liberator.

Does its function as a bird lookout undermine the authority or symbolic power of the statue? Does anyone even see it any more? Do monuments matter? After the ribbons have been cut and the political speeches have concluded, how much do we notice the statues, sculptures and plaques in our midst? Do they continue to proclaim the significance of the individual that they commemorate, or do indifference and the seagulls quickly get the upper hand?

From April 1962, the statue of Daniel O'Connell with Nelson's Pillar in the background. Photo: George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Given the conflict surrounding the removal of the Confederate monuments in the United States recently, it seems that monuments certainly do continue to matter, particularly when they are removed or destroyed. While it might seem that statues blend into the background after a while to become part of a familiar streetscape, they can very quickly become lightening rods for political division.

Not only do they represent a particular version of history, they also represent the power of that history and the fact that it is given prominence and authority. It would be easy to tell someone protesting the removal of a controversial monument not to worry, that history is not being erased, as it still is amply represented in books and other archival sources. However, the key issue is not the erasure of history, but rather the fact that prominence, power and authority is being taken away from that particular historical narrative.

Problems arise when the monuments seem to represent a nation or an ideology that is no longer acceptable

In Ireland, we have our own long tradition of creating and removing controversial statues, and the Irish experience might have something to offer in understanding the current tensions and conflicts around the meaning of monuments around the world.

Many people in Ireland will know about the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar or the statue of King William of Orange, that used to stand outside the gates of Trinity College Dublin and was regularly vandalised by members of the public and college students until it was finally blown up in 1928. They may have heard about the statue of Queen Victoria, designed by John Hughes R.H.A., that stood outside Leinster House until it was removed and relocated to the grounds of the Royal Hospital at Kilminaham in 1948. It was moved again, this time to Sydney in Australia, in 1986.

From RTÉ Radio One's History Show, a discussion on the bombing of Nelson's Pillar

These monuments were built at great expense, but their meaning significantly changed in different political circumstances. Their removal - either through violence or political decision - reflects the fact that they were no longer deemed worthy of occupying the public space of the nation.

This begs the question: how can monuments and statues have such disparate meanings? How can they function as symbols of colonial oppression for some people, sources of pride and identity for others and useful romantic meeting places in the busy city centre for many others?

The work of Loughborough University social psychologist Michael Billig provides some interesting perspectives on the strange ways public monuments work in our society. His book, Banal Nationalism (1995) identified the difference between "hot" and "banal" nationalism. Hot nationalism refers to those moments in life and society where it is very obvious that a national identity is being performed or reinforced. Wearing shamrock to the St Patrick’s Day Parade or the singing of the national anthem before an Irish football game abroad are examples of hot nationalism. When we do these things, we are actively and visibly demonstrating our connection to a specific national identity.

Hot nationalism

But Billig argues that these performances of hot nationalism require everyday engagements with banal nationalism in order to make sense. Banal nationalism involves all of our everyday encounters with day-to-day objects such as passports, the flags that we see around us, the images on the stamps we use, the language on the signposts or the harp symbol on envelope that lets us know that our taxes are due. These are everyday markers of national identity which shape our sense of place and our everyday encounters with the world.

Statues and monuments occupy a strange middle ground between hot and banal nationalism. When they are first constructed, they can certainly considered as hot. Their construction involves fundraising, the selection of an artist or sculptor, a design process, the hard labour involved in constructing the monument  and the political pageantry around its official launch.

As the monument becomes part of the streetscape traversed by people as they go about their business, these hot meanings fade and they become part of the everyday world, another element of the street. But despite being in our peripheral vision rather than the full focus of our attention, they still structure our experience of our public spaces. Just because we do not walk around continually reminding ourselves of our national identity does not mean that the nation is not continually representing itself to us in our daily lives.

RTÉ archive news report on the restoration of a memorial for Constable Patrick Sheahan on Dublin's Burgh Quay

Problems arise when the monuments seem to represent a nation or an ideology that is no longer acceptable. Ideology and perception changes, but bronze stands still. They move from being an everyday encounter with an accepted idea back to being hot. But this time, they are hot with tension because they represent the opposite of shared, communal identity for some. When this happens, they quickly move back into the limelight. Their destruction represents the fact that their presence in public space has become intolerable for some.

Statues and monuments occupy a strange middle ground

When tensions arise, it is clear that two (if not more) ideas of the nation exist as competing communal identities. Public space becomes extremely contentious in these cases as different groups compete for control of the monumental space of our cities and streets. The monuments do much more than just signify specific histories: they structure our everyday physical, emotional and social experience of place and identity in the way that they are woven into our daily lives and routines. 

The Irish example shows us that moving monuments are part of social change rather than a simple erasure of history. It also reflects the importance of public space as a barometer of social and communal identity. Monuments don’t change and do their jobs very well, proclaiming their symbols in stone or bronze. However, the public space that flows around them changes very often. When the monuments don’t reflect their times, it can be time for them to move on.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ