John Henry Foley was one of the greatest artists this country produced in the 19th century. He was a world famous sculptor who was commissioned to produce many public works in different parts of the world including Galway. The statue he produced here was of Lord Dunkellin, a 2.5 metre high bronze on a polished Peterhead red granite base which stood on two steps of Aberdeen granite about 20 yards inside the main gate into the Square. ‘In none of the great works which have given him world-wide celebrity has he shown more genius and skill than in the present instance where, with only the slender assistance of a photograph, has he been able to produce the faithful likeness.’
Before the statue went up, The Nation of June 28, 1873, in an editorial commented: “What I complain of and I think the people of Galway have reason to complain of is this - that the only public square in Galway, the only one that has been railed and planted by the people’s money, should be sacrificed to pander to the ambition and to please the vanity of the friends of Lord Dunkellin. Is there any reason why the people of Galway should place Lord Dunkellin among the immortal gods, sacrifice their public square to honour him and bow their heads as they pass along the public street in honour of Lord Dunkellin. I answer emphatically. No!"
Dunkellin was a landlord, the son of Lord Clanricarde who, after a distinguished military career, was elected MP for Galway. He died in 1867. The statue was unveiled in September 1873 and, as The Nation reported: “Most of the nobility and gentry of the county were there but of the people, there seems to have been scant attendance.”
The Galway Vindicator described the speech made by John Redington, the chairman of the town council: “I accept then, with particular gratification, on behalf of the trust you have this day committed to our charge and I earnestly hope that this statue may remain for future generations as a symbol of social harmony which has ever happily existed amongst us, and as a testimony of our appreciation of Lord Dunkellin’s high and sterling qualities of head and heart.”
The reason the people were in scant attendance was because they hated him. Many of his tenants were forced to contribute to the cost of the monument, a good deal of the money being obtained by threats. Far from being a symbol of social harmony, Dunkellin was a symbol of landlord tyranny, a man who seemed determined to put down every trace of Irishness in his tenants. During the Land War, his younger brother, then Lord Clanricarde, was in the eye of the storm that was the Woodford and other evictions. He too was hated by his tenants and indeed by most of the population.
In 1886, a motion was proposed at meeting of the town commissioners: “That this Board remove the statue of Lord Dunkellin to some less prominent position more suitable to his character and the character of his successor, the Marquis of Clanricarde.” There was uproar before the motion was defeated by 12 votes to seven. Over the years there were quite a number of threats to the monument from those opposing it.
It survived until 1922. As soon as the British army evacuated Renmore Barracks, it became a target. According to The Galway Observer of May 27, “On Thursday night, a crowd numbering several thousands assembled inside the Square and two men set to work sawing at the base of the life-size bronze. A rope was afterwards procured and tied around the neck, and with a strong pull, over it went amidst great applause. After some speeches the statue was dragged by thousands through the streets with a band playing Irish reels and hornpipes, and taken out to the pier head. As it was being thrown into the water, Mr Larkin of the Galway Tenants' Association said ‘Let it go boys, and may the devil and all rotten landlordism go with it.’ Amidst roars of joyous laughter, the band played 'I’m forever blowing bubbles'."
The Galway branch of the Town Tenants' League had actively campaigned for similar entitlements for urban dwellers as had been conferred on the farmers. They wanted more local housing and a freezing of evictions.
The following morning, the statue had disappeared from the Quay Stream, removed by some enterprising person who understood the value of bronze. It was never seen again. It was not the only hated statue to be removed by republicans after the British left, the image of the Earl of Carlisle in Phoenix Park disappeared, as did the Earl of Carlisle in County Offaly, and of course, in more recent times, Lord Nelson and his pillar were blown up in O'Connell Street.
Our thanks to the National Library for this photograph which dates from c1880.