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Portrait of a Famine Queen

Portrait of a Famine Queen –Jack Coombe tells us the story of how the statue of Queen Victoria made her way from Dublin to Austraila

If you’ve ever found yourself wandering around the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and its beautiful grounds you may have noticed on the upper terrace above the sunken garden figures of angles carved in stone. While you might have initially dismissed these figures as remnants of some dismantled building or the like, they actually have a fascinating story to tell about the history of the state. These figures once adorned the plinth where an enormous bronze sculpture of the Famine Queen, or more formally, Queen Victoria of England, once stood or sat as the case was on a throne outside the front of Lenister House. So where did Queen Victoria disappear to and why our the remnants of her plinth in Kilmainham Hospital. In 1922, Ireland’s newly formed Free State government needed a place to conduct its political affairs. Initial plans to convert the Royal Hospital Kilmainham into a parliament building hit a snag as the British Army still occupied the premises.

Michael Collins spearheaded the search for an alternative venue with two key requirements: it must have a large auditorium or lecture hall for the Dáil to convene, and it must be easily defensible from attacks by anti-treaty forces. Leinster House met these criteria, and the government secured a lease from the Royal Dublin Society, which had acquired the former home of the Duke of Leinster in 1815. Two years later, the Irish state purchased the mansion outright.

The story of Queen Victoria’s statue traces back to her 1900 visit to Ireland, where she aimed to commemorate Irish soldiers who had fought in the Boer War and bolster recruitment for the British army. Following her visit, the RDS launched a fundraising campaign for a statue to memorialize the event. Just eight years before the 1916 Rising, a bronze statue by Irish sculptor John Hughes was unveiled on the 5th of February 1908 at a ceremony which saw about 1,000 troops on parade, and a large number of invited guests. The Irish Times celebrated the statue as “a noble addition” to Dublin’s array of monuments, offering great praise to the sculptor. The monument dominated the front garden of Leinster House Standing atop the monument at a massive 15 feet tall, Queen Victoria gazed over her subjects, while below, the plinth featured figures representing “Hibernia at War,” “Hibernia at Peace,” and Fame, the “ dyeing solider with rifle in hand  representing Hibernia at war takes the form of an Irish participant in the south African wars, this was to represent the contribution Irish solders made in the Boer wars.

The monument’s inscription honoured Queen Victoria as the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, erected by her Irish subjects. The statue managed to weather the revolutionary period unscathed, but after Ireland gained independence, attention shifted towards its potential removal. While several statues associated with the British Empire became targets for militant republicans in the early years of independence, it was the state itself that began contemplating the removal of Queen Victoria from her prominent position in front of the parliament building.

In August 1929, The Irish Times reported ongoing discussions about removing the statue, citing reasons that its presence was offensive to national sentiment and marred the architectural elegance of the parliamentary buildings. However, the government’s stance in the Dáil in 1930 was less emphatic, expressing that while the statue was not considered a significant or aesthetically pleasing artwork, it was deemed unworthy of public expenditure for removal. But By February 1933, some members of Fianna Fáil voiced their objection to having such a symbol of imperialism outside the Dáil, considering it incongruent with the party’s objectives. Finally, on a rainy day in July 1948, the process of removing Victoria from Leinster Lawn commenced. It involved dismantling the Portland stone base of the monument and marked the beginning of a lengthy procedure that ended with Victoria being placed in storage at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham for over forty years before been moved to an old reformatory school in Offaly and then eventually in a somewhat ironic twist of faith the nation of Ireland banished Queen Victoria or at least her statue to Australia in the form of a gift to the city of Sydney  on the occasion of their bicentenary.

She now sits on a new plinth in the Bicentennial Plaza, adjacent to the Queen Victoria Building and facing Sydney’s Town Hall .So what of the remnants of the plinth well the angels are as discussed on the lawn of kilmainham hospital, the stone base is in an over grown corner of bully’s acre (there is a truly excellent article on bully’s acre on this sight I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t yet ) and the bronze figures  of “ Hibernia at war “ “Hibernia at peace and fame found their way to Dublin castle unfortunately today  these are not on public display . Though Victoria has left us she did leave her husband Prince Albert remaining in Ireland.

Prince Albert whose statue now resides on the Merrion Street side of Leinster House since 1950 first erected in 1872 hehas been relocated on the premises three times and is the last remaining statue of a British royal in Dublin there has been much talk of his removal down through the years but like a bad guest he remains long after he has outstayed his welcome. one must ponder the deeper meaning of why Prince Albert stands protected inside the iron  railing of Lenister house where surly only statues of  our Greatest of Irish heroes  have won the right to stand maybe it’s time Prince Albert gives up his plinth to someone far more worthy of it in this most prestigious of locations .














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