The Spire - what could have been instead.

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

What other than the world’s tallest sculpture could have been standing on O’Connell Street today? Sinéad Keating takes a look.

The 120-metre-tall steel cone rising from the centre of O’Connell Street is a staple of the Dublin skyline. This famous landmark, officially called the Monument of Light, did not have a smooth journey to its completion in January 2003. What else, other than the world’s tallest sculpture, could have been standing in its place on O’Connell Street today?

It began when the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and Dublin City Council (then called Dublin Corporation) created an international competition in 1998 as part of the regeneration of O’Connell Street. They asked for a monument that “shall have a vertical emphasis, an elegant structure of the 21st century contemporary design which shall relate to the quality and scale of O’Connell Street.” The chosen site was where Nelson’s Pillar had stood for over 150 years until it was exploded by the IRA in March 1966. The competition was open to the public and received a record 205 entries. Architects, artists and anyone with an idea could put forward their creations, leading to a very varied response. Popular imagery were the harp, the phoenix and high-tech symbols of rockets or spaceships.

One entry with a strong nationalist theme, called the “Liberty Fountain”, included statues of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation against a wall, awaiting death by gunshot. This, along with the proposition of a tricolour with bullet holes, were the only entries representing Dublin’s recent violent history. Others looked further back into history, designing a medieval siege tower, a modern recreation of a portal dolmen, and a huge ogham stone. Religious imagery was sparse. However, there were several proposals for a huge Celtic Cross.

A more light-hearted design named the ‘Love Elevator’ proposed guiding members of the public through the romantic works of Irish poets. 

The jury voted two-thirds in favour of the Spire as the winning design. Designed by London-based Ian Richie Architects, Richie described it as “inspired by the ever-changing light and composition of the Irish skies. The form continues the tradition of standing stones and obelisks.” 

They argued that it was 'a courageous embodiment of the 21st century and a monument worthy of a capital city.

The first delay in its erection was caused by issues with planning permission due to its height. The second delay was brought on by two spurned entrants of the competition. Each appeared in court against Dublin Corporation on Monday May 24th, 1999. Micheal O’Nuallain claimed that the Spire would be at odds with the historical context of O’Connell Street. Mary Duniyva, the self-described ‘ultimate woman poet’ claimed that the Spire would be "an anorexic and alien body - alien from every angle in material, size, shape and symbolism". The Arts Council countered these claims saying the Spire was a 'unique and exciting design' and was a suitable response to the 'broad horizontal nature' of O'Connell Street. They argued that it was 'a courageous embodiment of the 21st century and a monument worthy of a capital city’.

Ms Duniyva’s own proposal for the project was named The Sun Pillar. It proposed a recreation of the column of Nelson’s Pillar, inscribed with a poem of her creation and topped with a bronze and gold sun sculpture. Mr O’Nuallain proposed a “skypod” on a hexagonal column, which sat on a glass two-storey base. It was based on Cuchullain, with the pod being his shield and the tower his sword. He claimed “New York has its Statue of Liberty, Paris the Eiffel Tower and Dublin will have its Flying Saucer”.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, we don’t have an enormous ogham stone or a Sun Pillar or indeed a Love Elevator on O’Connell Street forming an integral part of the Dublin landscape.