In its present incarnation, Dublin’s iconic Shelbourne hotel has stood since 1867. It rates a mention in James Joyce’s Ulysses. More recently, however, it found itself the victim of cancel culture — thanks to a supposed connection with slavery. But rather than wait for an angry mob to turn up, the hotel pre-empted matters and acted as its own judge, jury and executioner.
The hotel has voluntarily donned the sackcloth and ashes because of four statues that stood on plinths at the front of the building. The bronze figures showed robed women holding torches above their heads.
However, based on a mistaken internet article, the American-based Marriot Hotel group, which now owns the Shelbourne, decided that at least two of the statues depicted Nubian slaves in Ancient Egypt and so had them removed.
Dubliners regarded the 153-year-old statues simply as lovely ornaments that were part of the city’s heritage. They were not happy to wake up to four empty plinths. It never occurred to them that any of the four statues were of slaves.
Then it turned out that none of the statues depicted slavery at all. Kyle Leyden, an Irish art historian based at the University of London, emerged to fill us in on their history.
He found the original art catalogue the statues were chosen from. The statues were cast at Val d’Orsne foundry in Paris and are described in the catalogue as Egyptian and African women. The alleged manacles around their ankles are in all likelihood simply gold ankle bracelets.
At the time of writing, Dublin City Council is investigating whether the removal of the statues breached planning law. There is a fair chance they will be restored to their rightful place.
Nonetheless, there are still demands that they be kept hidden from view. Dr Ebun Joseph, who co-founded the first Black Studies module at University College Dublin, insists they are slaves. She tweeted that accepting Kyle Leyden’s word that they are not, over the judgement of people like her, is “white privilege” at work.
The whole incident is now playing out as a farce. But it is indicative of the fraught atmosphere we live in that an American-owned hotel in Dublin would take it into its head that the statues which adorned the front of the building must be slaves and rather than wait for trouble to come to it, decided to bring trouble on itself.