John McDonagh and Martin Galvin speak to Liam Sutcliffe via telephone from Dublin about how, in 1966, the year of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, Liam blew up Nelson’s Pillar, a dramatic symbol of British imperialism that was in the centre of Dublin. (begins time stamp ~ 21:50)
John: And we head over to Dublin itself and speak with Liam Sutcliffe, the man who took Nelson’s Pillar down, even though it had been up there since October 29th of 1809 – it lasted until 2AM March 8th 1966. Liam, are you there with us?
Liam: I sure am! I’m here, yeah. (both laugh)
John: Well Liam, I had a great time hanging out with you in Dublin. But maybe quickly explain how you came up with the idea to do it. I mean the idea was always there from I guess the time it went up in 1809 but why did you think you could be the one that could take down that Nelson’s Pillar?
Liam: Well many attempts were made to bring it down and we decided in early ’66…
John: …Now when you say – no, no, Liam – when you say ‘we’ – who’s ‘we’?
Yeah well I along with other people went – I was asked to accompany some people to bring the mine at the top and we done the security on it and Dublin was not like New York – Dublin closed down at 11:30 then you see in ’66. So we decided that so we would go on this certain date. So we went up on the 28th of February and then the next morning we had no result – it was still up there – or it hadn’t gone off. So the next thing was I was asked to take it down. So I had to go along there and go back when it opened the next morning and entered the pillar, went up, and stripped it and took the lift down again.
John: Now how did you get up on the pillar, Liam? How were you able to get up and down?
Liam: Oh well, what I did was along with one other guy we bought these hold-all bags and then we went up and took it down.
When I got to the top on the morning of the 1st of March it hadn’t gone off. I looked at it – and it was ‘alive’ so I had to strip that down. And I stripped it all down and then took it off the pillar and the following week I re-designed – because I hadn’t designed the first one but I designed the second one – and I went up on the 7th of March and it went off on the 8th of March – it was a Tuesday, the following day.
John: Now when you say you went up on the pillar – if anyone looks at the picture – this is a huge pillar – what did you have? A ladder? How did you get on top of the pillar to place it by the statue?
To enter the pillar by paying a sum of about, in Irish money, was six pennies.
Liam: Yeah. And you went up – there was a stairs inside of the pillar which you were able to climb up and go up onto the platform.
John: Right. And then – yeah, go ahead.
Liam: So I left it there on the Monday, the 7th of March, and the next morning I got the news it was gone so…
John: …But were you ever afraid that it could have went off early and hurt just the civilians walking up and down?
Liam: No. Oh, no, no, no. We had that all sussed out before we went up and we watched it and there was nobody – hardly anybody in O’Connell Street – there was nobody in O’Connell Street…
John: …So you had the timer set for 2 AM on March 8th?
Liam: I had indeed, yeah, but it went off at 1:32 and the reason why it went off I had put a fast speed on it so it picked up the minutes as it went along so I left it there. I left the pillar – I was the last man on the pillar at 3:10 – ten past three – on the 7th of March and that was the end of it and I –
Martin: …Liam, this…
Martin: …Liam, this is Martin Galvin. Did you have any idea how popular your blowing up Nelson’s Pillar would be where people would write songs, they’d put it on album covers, they would – you could pay to have your picture taken with it – did you have any idea when you did it how, what the reaction of people in Ireland would be – you know there’s some things like the helicopter escape or things like that – you’re blowing up Nelson’s Pillar – which something, it appeals to something deep down in the Irish persona you know about a great joke and a blow against the British and did you have any idea of the reaction?
Liam: No, I didn’t. But I know Dublin people and Irish people and they always get a kick out of something like that. And they put their names on the thing so that’s why the next couple of days later on they had a song about it – Up went Nelson.
John: And Liam, you didn’t speak about this for a long time. And you did an interview I think on RTÉ, which is the national broadcasting in Ireland…
Liam: …That’s right, I did…
John: …You did. Now why did you…
Liam: …that was after a long…
John: Yeah, but why did you do the interview then?
Liam: …that was after a long time.
Liam: It was a long time after that…
John: …Now, why did you…
Liam: …because everybody…
John: …Yeah. Okay, why did you wait so long?
Liam: Sorry. Well the reason why I remained from telling the story was that I wanted to give the satisfaction of it to the IRA at the time but they denied they had anything to do with it.
Now there was other guys that were picked up for it but I was never picked up. But then different guys were picked up, one in particular, a guy was picked up and brought in for questioning and of course it proved it was likely that he hadn’t done it but he had some neighbours who were inclined to think like he had blown it and they were buying him drinks for a couple of years later, you know?
John: Well you now, it inspired a playwright over here, she’s from Dublin, Honor Malloy, and she tells the story in the play about her father that morning picking up the sword of Lord Nelson and bringing it home and it became part of her family folklore. What ever happened to the sword and the head and some of the parts of the statue?
Well the head is in Dublin and it’s parked on Pearse Street – Pearse Street, which is re-named after Padraig Pearse. And the sword – the last I heard of the sword was that one gentleman picked up the sword and took it to a car, to his wife. Now some other guy was watching him. So the first guy went back to get another piece of the pillar and while he did that this other guy came along to the wife and said the husband had told him to take the sword that they were searching all the cars and this – and she handed him the sword. And when the husband came back and realised she had given it away he went crazy. But in later years then, or a couple of years ago, one – a taxi man who was driving me home – told me that his mother had it, or his mother-in-law, had the sword but that’s all the information he would give me.
John: Now Liam, you’ve been involved most of your life, well probably all your life, with the Irish Republican Movement.
John: How do you think it’s all ended up? I mean the way now that you know former comrades are now administering British rule in Ireland – I mean, it’s certainly – you’d never realised it was going to end up the way it has ended up.
Liam: Never, never ever envisioned that at all like you know? And I also was an agent in the British Army, you know.
John: Right, but you joined the British Army on behalf of the IRA to infiltrate it and get trained.
Liam: Yes, yes. I was an agent in there, yes.
Liam: Because we robbed a couple of barracks of theirs, you know?
John: Right, and took the arms.
Liam: We stole the ammunition out, yeah.
John: Right, right – on behalf of the Republican Movement.
Liam: And guns.
John: But listen: We’ve had on Darkie Hughes on this show and a lot of other Irish Republicans that said that they would never have went out and did what they did if they’d known that the end result would be to go into Stormont and administer British rule.
Liam: Well the amasing thing about – in all the deaths and everything else that happened, North and South, the Irish never, ever got an extra blade of grass – and all the death and all the hunger strikers paid with their lives – and we didn’t receive one extra blade of grass.
John: Yeah, it’s sad the way the revolution ended up.
Liam: Very, very, very sad.
John: But – you know what, finally, Liam? Based on your construction now of O’Connell Street they replaced Nelson’s Pillar with this thing called the Millennial Spire – I mean it is hideous!
I mean I didn’t mind ‘the floozie in the jacuzzi’ when they had the statue there on O’Connell Street but what do you think of what they replaced your work with?
Liam: (laughs) Well I don’t think much of it. And we also had Molly Malone on Grafton Street.
And they called her the ‘tart with the cart’, you know? (both laugh)
John: Well listen Liam, I thank you for coming on. We going to head a little bit north but we’re going to go out the song that was probably the most popular. It was put out by, I think, by a Belfast group called Go Lucky 4 and it’s called Up Went Nelson. Do you have any preference between The Dubliners, Tommy Makem, Up Went Four – I mean they’re all pretty good songs about your work.
Liam: They are, yes certainly! And the thing about it is I fancied The Dubliners.
John: Right, right.
Liam: I thought they done a great job, you know?
John: Yeah, we just played that…
Liam: ..well any song, sure. We always get a kick out of the songs.
John: And do you get an extra pint now when you go into the pub based on your previous work of construction?
Liam: Oh! Indeed I do! I do indeed! (all laugh)
John: You know what? At least it’s not the other guy!
John: At least it’s not the other guy getting the free pint now.
Liam: No! He’s buying me pints now – to pay me back! (all laugh)
John: Oh, Liam! Thanks for coming on.
Liam: Not at all.
John: Alright. And that was Liam Sutcliffe who, in 1966, blew up Nelson’s Pillar in the heart of Dublin. When I tell you – the middle of Dublin – he blew it up! And he’s only been telling the story recently and he told it on RTÉ and I forgot to ask him – the Gards arrested him after he did the interview but they let him go.
Martin: Right. That’s why he kept silent.
John: Yes. Alright, we’re going to go to the song and when we come back we’re going to head to Doire. (ends time stamp ~ 34:35)