The origin of the Statue of Liberty

I suppose the recent devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina an Rita have kept the USA in the minds of the majority of people in this country as well as in other parts of the world in weeks gone by. The source of attention in the recent past was of course where the Hurricane's struck, the southern states on the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi. The towns of New Orleans, Baton Rouge and later Galveston took the full blunt of storms and hundreds of lives were lost.Many deaths resulted in the unprepared factor in the area. Again in New Orleans it was the poorer class that suffered most, surely a contraction of the word associated with the Statue of Liberty standing a few thousand miles away in New York harbour. An excerpt from the poem of Emma Lazarus reads "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, I lift my lamp beside the golden door".

This was the dream of thousands of emigrants, including Irish, who left their homes in desolate countries to seek employment in the 'Land of Free'. Somehow we sometimes forget the thousands of slaves who were brought into this land to work on the plantations, the southern states never knew freedom.
It was this and the thoughts of where that statue had been intended for that set me thinking of the story of the Statue of Liberty. To really start this tale we must go back in years and some thousands of miles from New York. We must in fact go to another well known harbour that was probably in existence before New York was ever heard of, the harbour of Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt.

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi(1834-1904) was a French sculptor who liked to erect large statues. He specialised in larger than life sized and travelled to see figures of Rome and ancient Greece. He went to Egypt to view the Pyramids and the Sphinx and was overwhelmed by their sheer size and mystical appearance. It was following his visit to Egypt that this idea of a large statue shifted from large to colossal. He had heard of the Pharoahs Lighthouse at Alexandria and had seen Pompeys Pillars at the port.(There is an exact copy of one of the Pillars near the Wexford/New Ross road in Co.Wexford.) It was on this journey that he met a man who also had big ideas. This man was Count Ferdinand de Lesseps who had a dream of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by means of canal through the desert. While many said that the Court was mad to have such an idea Bartholdi thought it would be a wonderful plan, and decided that he would contribute to this magnificent venture by building a colossal monument to match the size of the project. He decided it would be twice the size of the Sphinx and would be patterned after the Roman goddess of Liberty. The theme of the statue would be "Egypt carrying light to Asia". When he sought finance for his idea he could find no sponsor so he returned to France with the thoughts of the lady still in his head.

He was not long back in France until the Franco-Prussian war started and he was called upon to do his duty for his country. He became a major in the French army and following the defeat of France he sailed for America, the Land of the Free. Once again his thoughts turned to his monster statue and Liberty. He was struck with the amazing skyline as the boat entered New York harbour and in his quick mind he visualised the statue standing on the island in the harbour entrance.

Later when he had surveyed the area he choose Bedlos's island (Now Liberty island) as the place for the statue. Bartholdi met with several Americans and told them the addition a statue would make to the appearance of the harbour entrance. He now knew that he could count on some help regarding the site for the statue, so when he came back to France he organised a lottery and raised enough money to commence work on the statue. When it was completed it was sent across the Atlantic in 214 packing cases.There it was assembled and erected on the foundation which required 24,000 tons of concrete. The statue weighs 225 tons and stands at 151 feet from the base to the torch. The crown on her head contains seven spikes. On October 28 1886 over one million people lined the streets of New York to watch the official opening parade. This is when another habit that is with us to this day occurred for the first time.

Some office person unwound one of the spools of tape to record messages on the ticker tape and others followed their example and in minutes the New York ticker tape welcome was born. Among those who went out to the island on that occasion was Grover Cleveland (President of the USA). Bartholdi himself was in the head of the statue to release the French tricolour when the speaking was over. He was to get the signal for this from a boy on the ground by the wave of a handkerchief. Senator William Evatts who was noted as a long speaker was making his speech and dragging it out as usual when he stopped for a moment to sneeze. The boy thinking it was over waved the hankie and Bartholdi pulled the cord to release the flag. At once ships blew their whistles and bands started to play, that ended the speech. So Bartholdi had his dream fulfiled even if it wasn’t in the place he originally intended. The official name of the statue is Liberty Enlighting the World".

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist
November 2005