Changes to our Town

Brendan Grimes
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – 14th Jan 2014)

Skerries Historical Society began the calendar year with another of those magical talks from Brendan Grimes. As an architectural historian, his talks are always connected to structures or the stone they are built from and The Hamilton Monument was no exception.

Brendan began with an overview of the use of the obelisk in architecture since earliest times. In ancient Egypt it was a statement of power – only a truly powerful individual such as the pharaoh could coordinate a workforce large enough and skilful enough to cut the monolith and have it placed in position. But it also had religious connotations – the stone was a thing of the earth reaching up to the heavens, a link from the corporeal world to the spiritual.

The Romans liked the idea of the obelisk and soon wealthy Romans were ‘pinching’ them from their Egyptian homes and transporting them back home. The significance of the monument changed at this time. It was still only the rich and powerful who could afford to have the monoliths moved and shipped but once in Rome the original religious meaning was lost and they became used as markers for public spaces.

The meaning of obelisks has continued to change over time. By the 18th century it had become traditional to use them to commemorate great men. Churches and graveyards from this period are full of them. The Wellington testimonial is probably the most famous, being the highest obelisk in Europe at 62m or 203 feet. There are four bronze plaques on its base created from melted down cannon captured at Waterloo.

But is our Skerries monument a scaled down replica of the Wellington monument? Brendan was swift to demolish this popular theory. Of course it bears similarities, he pointed out. It’s bound to – they’re both obelisks. But that’s as far as it goes.

The second part of Brendan’s talk focussed on how our Skerries monument came into being. He drew a fascinating portrait of James Hans Hamilton, to whom the monument is dedicated. What sort of a man was he? According to the inscription on the base of it, he was ‘a kind friend and benevolent landlord’: the sort of man who could inspire his tenants to contribute their hard earned wages to a fund to raise a monument in his memory. But is that the real story?

Brendan could not claim to have absolute proof, but a great deal of circumstantial evidence points to the probability that the Hamilton monument was not paid for by grateful tenants at all. It is far more likely that a group of Mr Hamilton’s friends, with whom he had formed the Skerries Building Company to exploit the boom brought about by the arrival of the railway, clubbed together to raise the monument in the year following his death.

Brendan has promised to pursue this line of inquiry and bring us a new talk on the Skerries Building Company in next season’s series of presentations. I, for one, can’t wait!

Report by Oona Roycroft

Page updated – 03 / 04 / 2014