Would Charleston ever be so audacious as to blow up the John C. Calhoun statue? On some dark night, ring dynamite round the gigantic monument in Marion Square and set fire to the fuse? What would it mean if we did? Would we be erasing history?
I bring all of this up because two Charlestonians recently carried on an argument in the Post and Courier. The Reverend Joseph Darby says that African Americans are doomed to see in every place a monument of their subjugation. The historian Robert Rosen says taking down monuments erases history. I respect these two men above almost all others in our city. But they cannot both be right.
As I strolled the streets of Dublin recently, I found myself siding with Reverend Darby. Taking down statues and renaming streets erased nothing there. The Irish will never forget England's long history in their country.
Nor will Charleston ever forget the Confederacy's short dominion over the South.
But Dublin is an easy case. It doesn't exactly fit Charleston. English loyalists don't live there anymore. No one mourned the departure of Queen Victoria. But Confederate sympathizers are all over South Carolina, and they wept genuine tears when their flag came down.
In Ireland, in 1809, the British put a statue of Lord Nelson at the top of tall granite pillar on Dublin's Sackville Street. Nelson kept Napoleon from driving the English out of Ireland, so you can imagine how the thing was a constant irritant to Dubliners.
Until the IRA blew him up.
Today, Nelson's gone, but not forgotten. His statue appears, irreverently, in James Joyce's famous novel, Ulysses, as the "one handled adulterer." (Admiral Nelson, a notorious womanizer, had lost an arm at the Battle of Tenerife.)
When I take my CofC students to Ireland, I point them to the spot where Nelson once lorded over Dublin. A stainless-steel spire rises nearly 400 feet now in his place. Dubliners don't much revere any monument, even their own erections. With a laugh, the guides tell American tourists that the spire is their "Stiffy on the Liffey."
Sackville Street was named after one of England's Lords Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Dorset, Lionel Sackville. As soon as the British left, Dubliners renamed the street for Daniel O'Connell who emancipated Ireland's Catholics in 1829. (Charleston's own Bishop John England was kicked out of Ireland for being his friend and collaborator.) The old street is preserved in a famous literary memoir, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street. Not much history was lost. The Irish still remember when English Lords Lieutenant made the rules.
O'Connell's statue stands at one end of his street. I always point out the bullet holes to my students. The British used "Big Dan" for target practice during the Easter Rising of 1916, when England's Lord Wimborne was still in charge. He thought shooting up O'Connell might kill the idea of Irish independence. It didn't.
William III, King Billy as the Irish called him, used to stand on Dublin's College Green. George I used to dominate Essex Bridge. George II was in the beautiful park, St. Stephen's Green. A voluminous Queen Victoria sat in front of Leinster House, which is now Ireland's seat of government.
In 1856, one patriot newspaper put it this way: "The Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monument of their subjugation."
After independence, Dublin swapped one of the Georges for a few paintings that now hang in the city's Municipal Gallery. Vandals blew up the other George in 1937. (Relieved of its English tyrant, Stephens Green now boasts monuments to Irish writers.) In 1986, Ireland gave Queen Victoria to the Australians, who venerate her memory somewhat more perfectly.
So I went to Belfast. I walked that city with Dominic Bryan, an anthropologist from Queen's University and co-chair of Northern Ireland's Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture, and Tradition. We went through Catholic working-class neighborhoods festooned with Irish harps on fields of green. We strolled Protestant streets covered in England's Union Jack. Territory is marked out like ganglands by 20-foot high murals to the paramilitaries: the Irish Republican Army, Ulster Defence Association, and the Ulster Volunteer Force. It's serious business in Belfast. Until recently, people got killed over these symbols.
Northern Ireland's government, a product of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, carefully shares power between Protestants and Catholics, and it formed Bryan's commission to demilitarize those symbols.
You can't just take one group's monuments away, Bryan told me, no matter how offensive to another. Reposition them, he advises. Change their context. Keep the history. Drain the symbol's power to subjugate. Move divisive statues into a truly historical context, a museum for instance.
In Belfast, neutral territory, public space shared by Protestants and Catholics, must belong to everyone. Sectarian banners are not allowed. Most parts of Belfast bear none of these symbols at all.
Maybe we ought to take a page out of Belfast's book. Public spaces like Marion Square shouldn't favor one sectarian group by celebrating the subjugation of another. Reposition Calhoun, maybe to the Charleston Museum.
I know that's unlikely. Power might be shared in the towns and cities. African Americans do have a say in Charleston's government. But not in the statehouse, where an all-white, Confederate-friendly political party makes the rules. And their rule, praised recently by gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton, is that cities shall have no power regarding their monuments.
Until we can do what Belfast does, let's Dublinize. I don't mean blow up Calhoun. Dublin hasn't blown up a monument for more than 50 years. But their long habit of irreverence is still intact.
Round a corner of O'Connell Street there's a statue to my own beloved James Joyce. He's leaning on an ashplant cane, a trademark of his semi-autobiographical, thorny character, Stephen Dedalus. Dubliners put up the statue themselves, but that does not stop them from calling him "the Prick with a Stick."
Until we reposition Calhoun, let's give that erection a nickname. Point the thing out to visitors and say, "Oh, that's just our Scowl on a Dowel."
Joseph Kelly, author of 'America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Towards Civil War,' is the director of Irish and Irish American Studies at the College of Charleston, where he has taught literature for 25 years.