Haunting Soldier

Jim Duffy is scathing of the people who poured paint over The Haunting Soldier statue in Dublin. 

Clean-up: Red paint thrown over ‘The Haunting Soldier’ sculpture in St Stephen’s Green is scrubbed off by park staff. Photo: Frank McGrath
 Photo Frank McGrath Irish Independent
Pathetic and disgraceful, but all too typical of the mindset of some fringe republicans and others. They have been doing this for a century. It isn't isolated. They cannot cope with monuments that reflect viewpoints they disagree with. Throughout the 20th century they destroyed all the monuments across Dublin that reflected the Unionist heritage of the city despite there being no public support to remove the monuments. The blew up the George II statue in St Stephen's Green, the William III statue in College Green, the Gough statue in the Phoenix Park, and most notoriously Nelson's Pillar on O'Connell Street - all artistically fine monuments whatever about their origins, and for which there was no support for their removal. Prince Albert's statue in Leinster House only survived because the republican bigots couldn't get access to it to blow it up.

In part the context of this is the fact that Ireland has had an unusual tolerance of fringe republicans engaging in violence throughout its history. Though there is and was no evidence for the violence having public support, and clear evidence that it didn't, our history has practically glorified these actions by unrepresentative minorities deciding that they, not democratically elected leaders, spoke for Ireland.

In practice most if not all the violent rebellions were tiny and had little support, but our spin on history after independence, representing the fact that origins of the post-independence elite were in one such fringe rebellion, talked up how the rebellions were rebellions by the Irish people despite not a shred of evidence to support that myth. Even the Easter Rising had very little actual support as it happened - as though who lived through it remembered. They remembered the fury across Ireland at what was in effect an attempted coup against the democratically elected leadership of Ireland. The Rising's image only changed later on thanks to the cack-handed, incompetent, blundering mis-handling of the aftermath by the British government that turned a scorned rebellion into something that retrospectively gained respect. The real attitude towards the Rising was captured in Navan in the aftermath of the so-called Battle of Ashbourne, later glorified by historians and elites, when a vast crowd of Catholic Nationalists packed the Fair Green in Navan in support of the RIC members killed in Ashbourne, as their bodies were brought to the nearby County Infirmary. Their remains were carried by the local clergy in a show of support. It was the biggest crowd since the days of Parnell. That fact, and the wholesale negative reaction to the Rising, epitomised by the headline over the editorial of the Nationalist local paper in Meath, the Meath Chronicle, describing the Rising as a "tragic blunder", was later buried from official memory.

The Irish War of Independence was another example, with the attack in Soloheadbeg on the day the First Dáil, democratically elected by the people was meeting, not having the authority of the Dáil and being openly admitted by the attackers as an attempt to bounce the Dáil into a war when many of its leaders were trying to focus their efforts on international diplomacy to get the Irish Republic international recognition.

The idea that a minority, claiming to be purists, could override the will of the majority produced a civil war, and was epitomised by the phrase by de Valera "the people have no right to do wrong" - meaning in effect that a minority has a right to turn to violence to over-rule a 'wrong' decision of the people.

The fear of enraging the aggressive violent fundamentalists paid a significant part in why the Irish men who fought in the Great War were never mentioned. It wasn't that people were ashamed of its members who fought in the Great War, or indeed that it was ashamed of its many members who were in the Royal Irish Constabulary (which had overwhelming public support until 1920, as the funeral mentioned earlier in Navan showed)

Modern Ireland was confronted with the warped logic of its duality (democratic one minute, willing to justify a minority turning to violence the next) when the Provisional IRA, without public authorisation or support, did the same thing that all the other small minority republican rebels did, and started using violence despite the overwhelming majority of Nationalists screaming at them "stop", and the repeated rejection of the party that was linked to the IRA until the IRA stopped its campaign.

It was not until the peace process that people felt safe enough from the threats of the fringe to openly talk about the officially censored part of their history - Irish men who fought in the British Army, Irish men who were in the RIC and DMP, or talked about the fact that actually public opinion was never behind any of the violent rebellions (most of whom were so unrepresentative they were tiny).

So the vandalism against the statue of the soldier cannot be seen in isolation. It is part of a dualistic political culture that glorified minority actions of destruction, of attacks, of violence, alongside speaking the language of democracy. Our glorification narrative about the fringe's right to enforce its opinion against the majority through violence, sabotage, destruction and intimidation even where the majority abhorred what was being done in their name and were shouting "stop", has created a tolerance for illegal acts censoring unapproved opinions that few other cultures have. That dualism can be seen visually in what happened to the statue of Prince Albert. Because it is in a high security site it survived destruction, but our duality led an Irish government to bury it in a hedge. The state protects it, but still tries to hide it, as if demonstrating our dualistic political culture.

The attack on the soldier's statue hopefully will enable us to face the fact that we have been far too tolerant of the fringe who think themselves infallible representatives of the people, and who can say "the people have no right to do wrong", whether that perceived wrong is a decision by democratically elected leaders to propose a different course to that of the fringe destructive minority, the right of people to commemorate those ancestors who fought in the Great War, served in the police or to keep historic statues in their cities and towns that may mean nothing to them psychologically other that they are historic and attractive. Independent Ireland for two long has fed the fringe monster and given it a legitimacy where the fringe felt the right to censor, destroy and intimidate those, the overwhelming majority, who actually don't share their fundamentalism and in history never actually did.

The statue can be restored but the mindset that think destroying it because it is contrary to their views has to be confronted, challenged and destroyed.

➽Jim Duffy is a writer.


  1. Yawn. Another example of Pearse's 'The Murder machine' still being relevant. The fifth columnists were the ones that relished killing the anti treaty side and they havnt gone away you know. Btw, if those who took up the gun against British rule had consulted the people for approval beforehand then 'not a shot would've been fired'. Just saying.

  2. Good piece - demonstrates the bankruptcy of those who could come up with nothing better than nihilism. It is embarrassing that people opposed to this are so limited in imagination that they can find no better way than destruction or censorship. There are so many ways in which this can be challenged rather than in a way that makes republicans (if they did it) appear as fascistic. The replication of an alternative image would have challenged it much more effectively. I was surprised at Eoin O Murchu supporting the desecration, arguing that it was a restoration of Ireland's honour. A long time critic opponent of physical force and the Provisional IRA where was he and what was he writing when Bobby Sands was trying in a serious way to assert the honour of resistance to British oppression?

    The author misunderstands the Provisional IRA campaign, reading too much into its own discourse rather than looking at the material factors that fed the growth of the campaign. He sees it as the linear continuation of the 1916 tradition when it was arguably anything but, being rooted in Northern circumstances rather than in the absence of unity. It is wrong to describe the Provisional IRA campaign as some assertion of obligatory nationalism.

    This act is more in line with the hate filled desecration of monuments to republicans in Milltown cemetery or the destruction of floral tributes at Narrowwater. If we don't like these things, challenge them rather than destroy them.

    Plenty to disagree with in a good piece but anyone with the courage to stand over their views on a site like this merits admiration which does not extend to agreement.

  3. Mean while in Belfast ' fringe republicans' removed a wreath in full view of Divis Tower and instead of inflaming a situtation took action that made sure the wreath was handed over to a trade unionist who passed it over to 'who ever' and today the undamaged wreath is in a garden of remembrance on the Shankill Road....Gets my vote. It was the right thing to do.

    IRSP spokesperson said the wreath was removed before it would "inevitably" be vandalised or destroyed by angry residents.

    They insisted everyone has the right to remember their dead in a "dignified and respectful" manner but added: "Putting this wreath in an area where it is not wanted will not pay testimony to that".

  4. Much talk of majorities, democracy and revision here. I don't believe a majority of Irish people (even Dublin people) asked for a giant British soldier to be plonked in the middle of their capital city.

    The main re-writing of history that I see is the constant shout from RTE of "let's celebrate the British in Ireland, they're our partners and best friends, etc etc etc." Peace-process politics aside, anyone who's not taking the mick knows that their involvement in this country has been anything but benign. The constant propaganda (rte, indo and others) to the contrary is hard to take at times.

  5. You can clearly articulate an argument, but I disagree.

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  7. Music soothes the savage beast so it’s said. However, in this case obviously it hasn't. In fact the opposite happened and perhaps that is the true essence of art, to elicit a response. But who is the savage beast. My sympathy goes with the daubers and my disdain goes towards the person who created it, those who planned it and indeed all the moral cultural snobs who supported it, not least the throngs of outraged media and fawning intelligentsia who have an overblown sense of worth, typical Irish. Like the idea behind the piece itself it is all a sham, a lie, a hypocritical sentiment that does not represent historical fact or the feeling of the people. Like the daubers, I do not accept it and I support their effort to not let this type of attitude become the norm. As a piece of sculpture it might have been ok without the gun but that little bit of red somehow elevates it a proximation of art. I hope it is let stay but no doubt the moral cultured brigade will airbrush any controversy away. The truth will not come out and history will remain under strict guidance.

    I wonder what the author of this article or the bombastic administration who erected it would feel if I stuck a flower in the mouth of the musket, or maybe knotted the barrel or added the word ‘No’ from it’s mouth. That might be appropriate. This piece is not art, it a loud imperialist propaganda statement maybe like the Reichsadler. Would you not topple that.

  8. Conor,

    not sure if you are addressing one of the commenters or the author.


    be careful how you answer because I don't want the state kicking your door in on the grounds that whatever answer you give is an endorsement of violence. Having the courage to stand over what you think should not be turned into an invitation to have you arrested for thinking out loud.

    How far does the not accepting it go? Do we topple every statue that we are politically opposed to? What do we do to articles like Jim Duffy's that support maintaining the statue - do we topple them also by obliteration of the writing? Can atheists now take it upon themselves to topple religious statues in public because in the atheist view such statues promote a lie? Why would they have any less right to do so than the daubers? The same applies to those who oppose anti-theocratic cartoons. We saw where that ended up in the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo. What rights does it confer on those who feel they lost loved ones at the hands of Frank Hughes, to destroy monuments erected in his honour? It all leads to the one conclusion - anybody with a grievance can take it on themselves to destroy what it is they are aggrieved about. I take a different view, refraining from asserting that there is a right not to be offended.

    The infantilization of opposition by the crude act of throwing paint over the statue fertilises even more the ground from which legitimisation grows. We are presented with on one hand an act of creative expression from an artist and on the other the nihilism of a dullard. With the tiniest bit of imagination, your ideas could have been easily applied and made more effective.

    Years ago statues erected in honour of King Leopold of Belgium began to have the hand cut off. That was a response to the sadistic policy of his regime in the Congo hacking off the hands of Congolese citizens because they would not or could not work hard enough.

    Wider society could see the clear political statement there - unimaginatively daubing paint projects an image of vandalism.

    A PR disaster in my view.

    I think a challenge to those of us opposed to these type of things is to make the effort to be more creative than our opponents, not more destructive.

  9. Unless there is a consensus from the general population, even if unspoken, about the statues presence, attacking it diminishes the attacker not the symbol. And it points to a lack of imagination that no counter narratives can be spun around its presence. Where does it end, I remember when it was in the news a few years back “gangsters” wanted to dig Alan Ryan’s corpse up and display it in public. IS have a thing about relics from other cultures too, we can’t compare motives though cause only IS have justified their actions, we can only guess at those motivated to do this. It needs to be explained, then leveraged to have any attempt at value.

  10. AM I think you might have hit on the head a very relevant point in your first statement. The strong arm of state know exactly who I am and where I live. I don't mind if they do and unfortunately it has never been in my nature to hold my tongue. I do try as best I can to be civil though. How do I get the feeling that it is that type of force that might elicit clandestine responses? I take your points though to a degree but I think it is not a level playing field and at time Ps and Qs go out the window. I agree with you about creativity and I encourage that. I also believe that not all acts like this one can be characterised as vandalism. I don't like the mindless terminology because somewhere in all these act the mind is working to a degree, even the vandalism of shoving this violent monstrosity down our throats. Just what is the mindset there? The degrees I am thinking are say genuine show of one's feeling/emotion as opposed to cool, calculated manipulation.

    A few years back a statue of Columba in a Catholic church grounds here had it's head chopped off. No matter how much I dislike the Catholic faith or for that matter, all faith, I can only classify that act as wanton vandalism. It probably was an act of God, or time or more likely booze. Let's hope that time does this one justice and cogs and chains crumbling.

    Another analogy that comes to mind was the moral outrage of the Grenfell Towers effigy. Now was that art? The media and moralist were all over it with a fine tooth comb. It sure was realistic, emotional. It certainly was in the spectrum of awfulness but I do uphold their right to it especially in their own place. If it was in a public space then that would be a different matter. You hear little of the moral outrage of the causes or the ones responsible for the Grefell Towers. Just like this we hear little from the ones who condone this sanitised revision of the awful inhuman carnage that occurred for greed. But hey hang draw and quarter those that dared make a statement.

    As for the artist - that is one way to describe the creator but I am sure a well paid one. For a long time I thought art must come from a sensitiveness soul, somewhere nice, seeking beauty or truth. But I discovered that this is not the case. It is commodity and for sale at the right price to anyone. All art innocent or otherwise can be usurped by the artist themselves or those who commission it.

  11. AM

    I am wondering what your views on removing Confederacy statues in Southern states of the US or the "Rhodes must fall" campaign organised by African students at Oxford Uni. My instincts are to favour the removal of both but can we really rewrite history?

  12. James - I think as a blog we have a duty to ensure our commenters are not arrested for something they might say in response to a question. Eoin O Murchu could face that fate although I hope he does not. At the same time we do not want to limit debate but feel much of the current censorious PC has had serious consequences. Hold your tongue in circumstances where you think the state might hold it in a cell for you. And you only loosen it if the point is so important that the cell has to be braved in order to make it.

    Arguably, vandalism is the way the attack has been perceived in most quarters - largely because the opinion formers have contextualised it as such. The politics of it have been lost so the question is how to make our disdain or opposition to these things politically effective.

    Mindless is often used to describe fascist/racist actions but there is always some mind as much as we may not like it. The mind behind daubing the statue could easily have been expanded to consider other options. It is always easier to accuse our opponents of mindlessness rather than address the mindful consideration, as wrong as it may well be, that went into preparing a course of action.

    Nor was the statue shoved down our throats any more than the statues of the famine victims were forced down our throats. I just happen to find the famine people very moving whereas the Haunted Soldier leaves me cold. Most people seem to be open to a radically different interpretation of memory from what we are used to. We have to allow others room to dissent from our opinion of whatever. If we allow the destruction of The Haunted Soldier we are in no position to deny the destruction of the Famine People. Best to have neither destroyed.

    I don't know why the religious statue was decapitated but if it was an atheist that did it would it be vandalism? The atheist might not describe it as such but society does not afford political exemption to atheists.

    The Grenfell Tower effigy was a private act if I am right, and we are forced to contemplate that the response was one of creating thought crime. Art is not always content that we agree with. I found it hateful but should people be prosecuted for it? In my opinion, no.

    I see no reason for art to be innocent or inoffensive. Andres Serrano's Piss Christ is art but it was hugely offensive to many. Hockley's painting that sold for an enormous price indicates the money interest that there is in art.

    I remember Lawrence McKeown's reimagining of the blanket being subject to all sorts of abuse. It was even dismissed as not being art. Of course it was art and by an artist who had actually lived what he reimagined, unlike many of his detractors.

    The Haunted Statue is a work of art, infinitely more creative than the paint thrown over it. That it is a work of art that annoys us does not detract from its artistic value. It is political art but lots of art is. Banksy is very much a political artist.

  13. 'Modern art' used to condition the peasants? They havnt gone away you know..........https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html

  14. Barry - there is an argument for removing Rhodes and Confederacy statues. Just as there is an argument to be made for removing the Haunted Soldier. But it has to be made, considered and decided upon, rather than the statues being destroyed by a self appointed minority. What I don't want is somebody telling me that it is their right to decide what I will be able to look at. I want to make that decision for myself. We fumble along in our own uncertain way trying to ensure that decision making involves the widest range of people possible. In doing that we infuriate The Committee for Public Safety mindset. I am okay with that. If they are offended by that then offended they are.

    There is no controversy in this society about the Haunted Soldier to the same degree that there is in the US over Confederate statues. That suggests republicans of our hue have lost the battle of interpretation in respect of the past. Part of the reason for that is the SF search for respectability. I would prefer the Haunted Soldier removed to a museum. But I know that a huge amount of people in this society would not agree with me and I don't believe that I have any right to impose my opinion on them: that only my opinion matters and the rest don't. Too much of the fascistic in that for my liking. And what it gives licence too - Pro choice activists could take it upon themselves to desecrate a statue of John Charles McQuaid, if one exists. As pro-choice as I am there is no way I would countenance that type of activity.

    At another level it all falls under the rubric of censorship. Censors will destroy or suppress something rather than let somebody else see it.

    As for history, we rewrite it all the time. We have to if we come across new material. We should never obliterate it.

  15. Barry - that all should be the Haunting Soldier, not the Haunted!

  16. Perhaps someone could explain to me what exactly republicans hate so much about this statue and to First World War remembrance in general. I don't get it. Is it the reasons for the war itself? The inter-royal tiff that got out of hand? Then I would agree with you on that. Is it because of the old generals that experimented with the new "industrial war" ideas and sent millions to their deaths? Then I would agree with that also. Or is it because working class lads joined up in huge numbers to fight in the British army? If that is the case then I really don't get it. Do these working class lads not deserve to be remembered? They joined up in a much different time to now. It was "expected", it was sold as "duty" and "adventure". Hundreds of thousands from these islands died in vain, doing what they believed was right. Do we just forget them? Right them off as royalist fools?

    I remember years ago reading about a war memorial in Scotland (I think) that had a placard put around the soldier's neck with "The Old Lie" written on it. This was a reference to Owen's poem Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori which he called the old lie. But republicans believe it is sweet and proper to die for your country given the death and martyrdom cults surrounding the hunger strikers and Loughgall 8, so you are not anti-war. On the contrary you are militarists. You believe in remembering your own dead. So what exactly riles you about all of this that you would vandalise a sculpture? Many of us have major problems with war, those that start them, that profit from them, recruitment methods and the actions during the wars but choose to remember the dead, lest we forget and repeat the same mistakes. But to vandalise a remembrance sculpture just reminds people how out of touch republicans are in modern Ireland and makes you look petty and brutish.

  17. Peter - people being remembered is not the issue. I have observed UDA and UVF graves in Roselawn without wanting to piss on them or desecrate them in any way.

    These guys fought in an imperialist war. Lions indeed, led by donkeys. In today's age where poppy fascism seeks to interpellate people into its rituals and symbolism, there is every good reason to dissent from these statues in the public sphere. And as a person of anti war sentiment I feel you should oppose them too. You are actually allowing the dead of WW1 to be articulated into an imperialist narrative dressed up as something else. There were German dead too - by excluding them from memorialisation society is somehow legitimising the British side.

    We can't be too harsh on them for joining the British Army - there were enough senior Provisional IRA members who had previously served in the British Army and who were lethally effective against it while serving in the IRA - but we should not look at the war through them but instead look at them through the war which was wanton wastefulness. I think the Dublin government should take a very clear stand and state clearly that the war was wrong and those who fought in it can not be absolved of culpability. That does not mean society demonises them. It just means it shuns the war in its entirety and allows commemorations of it and its participants to be private affairs.

  18. Peter - you might consider writing a piece for us on this

  19. Peter,

    at its most simplified is it not just another expression of "We" and "They", "Our boys" and "them'uns" ... ingroup favouritism and outgroup derogation?

    Thankfully the intensity of 'group polarization' continues to abate and there's somewhat more tolerance for 'middle-views'. The second centenary remembrance will be more inclusive!

  20. Seems to imply that Ireland was in an idyllic position politically, socially and economically while under British Rule...those statues in the other towns that were destroyed I have no doubt were protected by British laws rather than the will of the Irish people.....That incident in Navan, I would say the Church brought the people out and not the acts themselves for after all the Church backed Murphy and Redmond and preached bitter resentment against Connolly and the others....
    As for minorities starting wars.....all wars are started by minorities even that war the statue was commemorating.