This print by William McCleary of Dublin is a double rarity – Firstly, because it’s an hitherto unrecorded example of domestic Irish political satire, and secondly because it is one of the few prints published in this period to adopt a sympathetic stance towards the activities of Irish nationalists.

The print was published by McCleary from his shop at 21 Nassau Street and is dated 2nd November 1805. It depicts two men defacing the equestrian statue of William III which then stood at the centre of College Green.

The statue presented William of Orange in the guise of a conquering Roman general and was arguably one of the most controversial pieces of civic art ever erected. Since its unveiling in 1701, it had acted as the centrepiece for annual parades to celebrate the protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne and William’s birthday. This inevitably meant that it also became a target for nationalist protesters, as well as a goodly number of students who considered the decision to place the horse so that its backside faced Trinity College to be a calculating insult to the university.

The statue was subject to numerous attacks throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth-century. One of the earliest of these occurred in 1710 when three Trinity students scaled the statue, daubed the king’s face with mud and carried off his general’s baton. The hapless trio were quickly apprehended and, after entering a plea which has been used in an attempt to excuse all student misbehavior though the ages – namely that they had “indulged themselves too freely in drinking” when the act was committed – were fined £1,000 and sentenced to stand on College Green with signs around their necks which read: “I stand here for defacing the state of our glorious deliverer, the late King William” [1].

Other attacks were more politically motivated and became increasingly violent over time. In 1836, the residents of College Green were awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of a large explosion, caused by someone detonating a barrel of gunpowder which had been placed next to the statue. The figure of king was flung from its mount, crashing through a set of railings on the far side of the square, and both horse and pedestal were severely damaged [2]. The statue was repaired and remounted but remained a target for casual vandalism and mob violence. It was eventually destroyed by the IRA in 1929, who blew it to pieces with the aid of three large anti-tank mines.

The attack of 1805 was mild by comparison. At some time shortly before the parade to celebrate the anniversary of King William’s birth on 4th November, an anonymous vandal covered the statue in a coat of black paint.

McCleary’s print shows two men in the act of defacing the statue. I have been unable to positively identify either figure, although the one of the left bears a passing resemblance to caricatured representations of the Whig MP Charles James Fox and it is possible that this was intended as some sort of reference to his involvement in a further futile push for Catholic emancipation which had been seen off by the British government earlier in the year. The figure on the left says “I think this would be a grand subject for yr history of the late Irish Rebellion” and his companion responds “Aye so it would Paddy, give him a finishing touch”. At the foot of the ladder we can see the back of a watchman who looks up and yells “What are ye doing there at this time of night.”

For a more detailed look at the Irish trade in satirical prints, check out this earlier post.

This Irish history blog also has more on the King William statue, including a photograph of the original which was taken in 1898.