History’s Heroes Not Always Set in Stone

By Deaglán de Bréadún

A petition is circulating to have a statue of Jack Charlton installed at the Aviva Stadium (I still think of it as Lansdowne Road) in Dublin.

There are moves also to have a statue put up in his native village of Ashington in Northumberland. As far back as 1994, a statue in his honour was put on display at Cork Airport which shows him in fishing rather than football mode. He loved catching salmon as much as scoring goals, apparently.

It is difficult to think of anyone more popular than the English soccer legend. Putting up a statue in his honor at the Aviva and indeed Ashington would be widely approved. Charlton’s sporting achievements, both as a player and as Republic of Ireland manager, brought joy to the lives of millions.

I met the great man once, at the 1987 launch of Eamon Dunphy’s book, Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2. Friendly and cheerful, you took an instant liking to him. One of his catchphrases was “Put ‘em under pressure” and few would disagree with a rewording of that to say: “Put ‘im on a pedestal”.

But who knows, maybe in years to come, somebody will come up with a reason why the statue should never have been put in place. The only possibility I can think of at present is the fact that, as the Cork Airport monument illustrates,  Jack Charlton was a keen angler and some environmental activists disapprove of that pastime. It might seem far-fetched and fanciful but, the way politics are going, nothing can be ruled out any more.

If you had a penchant for bad puns, you might say that statues have become a monumental issue. Even the famous Winston Churchill statue at Westminster has been defaced with graffiti, suggesting that he was a racist. For all his faults, this is the political leader who led the opposition, with other international figures, to Nazi Germany in the second World War. Could you get anyone more racist than Adolf Hitler?

Nearer home, a statue of the 19th-century revolutionary nationalist John Mitchel at Newry has become a focus of attention. Radicalized by the horrors of the Great Famine, Mitchel’s efforts in the struggle for Irish freedom would be considered exemplary by just about everyone in that camp.

The last portrait of John Mitchell taken in 1875.
Photo: wikipedia

We need to find some middle way between expressing disapproval of the faults displayed by historical figures who have also evoked admiration in other respects

Although it was known that he supported the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, it is only recently that his open and unapologetic defense of slavery has received widespread attention. You worry about his mental state at the time he wrote that material. Perhaps it was a result of those years of involuntary exile when he was deported to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania.)

Nosy parker, I mean journalist, that I am, I went to Newry recently to take a proper look at the statue. It’s an impressive piece of work, admirably simple and basic in style. In his right hand Mitchel holds a quill and in his left there is a parchment. A few books are at his side: nothing warlike about it. A nearby notice-board gives some details of his life: surely a note could be added to say that his efforts on behalf of the people of Ireland are being honoured, not his support for slavery and the Confederacy?

Statue of John Mitchel in Newry, Northern Ireland.
Photo: Stefan Schäfer/wikipedia

Another contentious icon is Edward Carson’s statue at Stormont. Given his forensic courtroom destruction of Oscar Wilde, where he proved that the latter was homosexual, leading to the playwright’s imprisonment for two years, the case for removing the statue might also be supported by the gay community although he is said to have interceded on Wilde’s behalf at a later stage. With Carson, the best approach would probably be the addition of a nationalist figure at the same location. Oscar’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde, who wrote patriotic Irish verse and articles under the pseudonym ‘Speranza’ might be an idea.

Overall, we need to find some middle way between expressing disapproval of the faults displayed by historical figures who have also evoked admiration in other respects and who lived in an earlier and less-enlightened time. Removing and/or relocating statues should only be done by democratic decision of the local authority.

None of them, however controversial, should be damaged, defaced or vandalized. That’s not the way to go about it.

Reprinted with the permission of The Irish News www.irishnews.com

Deaglán de Bréadún is a freelance journalist and author based in Dublin. He is a columnist with The Irish News and his books include The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin. His reporting on the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and their aftermath for The Irish Times won the Northern Ireland IPR/BT award for Daily News Journalist of the Year.

One Response to “History’s Heroes Not Always Set in Stone”

  1. This is thoughtful and well reasoned. It’s almost impossible to find thinking like this nowadays. I’m grateful that I found it here.

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