When Queen Victoria “lived” in County Offaly

By Cheryl Devaney

In Sydney, Australia, a statue of Queen Victoria sits regally outside the Queen Victoria Building, also known as QVB.

This Romanesque Revival structure was so named to celebrate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Opened in 1898, it replaced the original Sydney market with a concert hall, coffee shops, warehouses and a wide variety of trade stalls.

Facing demolition, the QVB underwent a massive restoration project, reopening its doors in 1986.

It was felt that the building needed some appropriate statue at its entrance and various former British colonies were asked if they had a statue of Queen Victoria that was no longer required.

Unwilling to part with their possessions, they said ‘no’ but, fortunately, a statue was located in Ireland.

The Royal Dublin Society had proposed the idea for this sculpture after the Queen’s tour of Ireland in April 1900. John Hughes of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art was commissioned but, because of the size of the proposed work, moved his studio to Paris.

In 1908, seven years after Victoria’s death, it was unveiled in the courtyard of Leinster House. It had been intended to portray her as an ‘Irish Queen’ as she is seated in a low chair rather than on a throne and she is wearing a simple coronet, not the imperial crown.

She is also wearing a badge on her left breast, featuring shamrocks and Saint Patrick’s Cross; all of these indicated that she was the Sovereign Head of the Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick, which had been founded in 1783.

The three tonne bronze statue was placed on an eighteen-foot high Portland stone column, with three sculptural groups, Hibernia at War, Hibernia at Peace and Fame, around the base.

With the establishment of the Irish Free State and Leinster House becoming the seat of the Irish Parliament, the statue was considered inappropriate, not only on political grounds but because the fifteen foot high Queen was regarded as ‘an obese statue looking like a Wagnerian Rhine maiden and certainly the ugliest monument in the city’.

The five foot tall Queen did indeed have a gargantuan appetite and her doctors were concerned about her expanding girth.

They put her on a strict daily diet, which she duly followed after eating her massive regular meals! James Joyce even gave her the nickname “the auld bitch’.

The statue removal process took eight weeks, Victoria being taken out on her back, as she was too tall to pass through the Leinster House gates.

In July 1948, the statue was put in storage at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham – an unofficial dumping ground for politically incorrect government sculptures – along with the three sculptural groups from the base.

The British Government refused to take it back and attempts to send the statue to London, a city in southwestern Ontario, did not succeed as neither the Canadian nor Irish Governments wished to pay the transport costs.

As the Royal Hospital was undergoing refurbishments, in February 1980, it was transferred to a yard behind a disused children’s reformatory at Daingean, County Offaly.

Though Victoria had been removed, some of the base sculptures were placed in Dublin Castle.

Hibernia at War, which depicts a dying Dublin fusilier leaning against Erin, can still be seen in one of the Castle’s gardens; others remain at Leinster House.

In Sydney, Queen Victoria Building’s Director of Promotions, Neil Glasser, having found out about this work, made approaches to Garret FitzGerald in 1986, who authorized that it should be given to Australia ‘on loan until recalled’.

John Bruton, however, objected, as it was the work of an Irish artist and therefore ‘representative of one of the many traditions of Irish history’.

Nevertheless, the statue was transported by sea to Australia, the irony of a British Queen being ‘transported’ not being lost on the Irish media!

On December 20, 1987, Victoria, who had been cleaned up after years spent in that field in Daingean and restored to her former glory, was unveiled on a new plinth outside the Druitt Street entrance of Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building.

Technically, the statue still remains the property of Ireland.

In the meantime, Victoria can enjoy having her photo taken with backpackers sitting on her lap!