It was only a matter of time before the ‘tear ’em down’ cohort turned their attention to Ireland and her statues.
Of course, nobody had really noticed how offensive many of the world’s statues were until the weeks after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The murder of black people – men especially – by US police is too common. It has happened a lot more than once, which tells us that the police have a problem with race, or that they are racist.
When the Black Lives Matter movement was set up after Trayvon Martin’s murder, it helped draw attention to the fact that the police were failing to “serve and protect” adequately. This was news to a lot of white people, myself included.
George Floyd’s murder was similar to Trayvon Martin’s in that it shook the world out of its comfortably complacent attitude towards institutional racism. There were protests; there were riot police. There was a lot of anger. People began to look at things with new eyes – and something they began to focus on, for whatever reason, was statues.
There were conversations about slavery and removing the evidence of it in our society; in the UK, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was filmed being torn down by protesters. They rolled the statue to a nearby harbour and pushed it into the water. This display of anarchism made some people feel uncomfortable.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we appear to have reached the ‘tear ’em down’ phase in this country too. I’m pretty sure the Shelbourne case was a first for Ireland. As with other incidences of people pulling down statues without consulting health and safety, legality, etc, there has been some mixed reaction.
The Shelbourne’s American owners were initially alerted to the possibility of the statues depicting female slaves when an Irish-American blogger brought it to their attention. (Them bloody bloggers are never not stirring shit.) In the days following their removal, an art historian has said that, actually, the statues do not depict slaves.
The Irish Georgian Society lodged a complaint with Dublin City Council and some politicians like Senator Michael McDowell and Green MEP (and architect) Ciarán Cuffe said the owners should have followed correct procedure in removing the statues. Cuffe, McDowell, and others are understandably concerned about erasing Dublin’s past. The statues were sculpted by a Frenchman, Mathurin Moreau. (I have no idea who that is.)
Dr. Ebun Joseph has spoken in favour of removing the statues; debating Micheal McDowell on Prime Time, she said that whether the statues represent slavery or not is beside the point. “They represent white opulence. They represent white privilege, black servitude.” Ebun Joseph is an expert in race relations, racial stratification, and the labour market. She teaches on a Black studies module at UCD and, as she said on TV to McDowell, she believes in removing statues like those so the next generation doesn’t have to see them.
She failed to turn Michael McDowell’s head from the past and she angered a lot of similar-minded people who also love Georgian architecture, Dublin, and the Shelbourne Hotel.
To be quite honest I do not see the point in removing statues. I agree with McDowell and Cuffe and some of the others who have written about them. They are a part of history and should not be taken down, and certainly not without careful consideration. People of all backgrounds should know the history of slaves, and they should know why and how white people have profited from black people’s suffering for centuries.
Having said that, I have honestly never ever, not even once, walked past the Shelbourne and thought to myself, “Jaysus, them are some lovely historical looking statues there.” I have never noticed them before in my life; I’m usually too busy gawping at the real-life people walking in and out the hotel’s doors to be bothered looking at statues. I may be wrong but I’d guess that, apart from a few art historians and their corduroy-trouser wearing friends, nobody has ever really noticed the statues. Would they be missed terribly if they were gone? Would it be as though the city lost a limb, or something else valuable, like, I don’t know, Sam Maguire?
Ironically, now that I know they’re there I’m ever so slightly worried about the statues. I hate throwing things away – especially beautiful, valuable things. While I’m not sure I agree with Dr. Joseph on the statues debate, I do know that Ireland, like most countries, is racist. All you have to do – if you are white – is listen to what black Irish people say about the things they experience every day to know that we are a racist country. Nobody likes to hear that about their country. Imagine not feeling wanted in your own country? An ESRI report said that 49% of Irish people would not like to see more black people here – which must be damn hard to hear if you’re Irish and black, as Ebun is.
For want of any better solutions, perhaps we should go and ask the statues what it is they want. If none of us flesh and blood people can decide, maybe they can. I think if I were a statue, I would want to be taken inside the Shelbourne and put somewhere more comfortable. Maybe at the bar with a big bottle of Möet Chandon or Middleton… I wouldn’t ask for much, like. Those four statues have been out in all weathers for more than a hundred years now and I’m sure they’ve worked up a fierce thirst. So, I’m appealing to the good people at the Shelbourne, boot some of your rich patrons out, and let the statues in to rest awhile. There won’t be a peep out of them; let them fade into the background once more and let Ireland concentrate on making her actual people feel safe and loved. Ending direct provision would be an idea, for starters.