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 Irish Public Sculpture
Judith Hill

 Irish Literary Supplement
'Do public monuments ever fulfil the hopes that their builders place in them?  A century ago, Irish nationalists believed that by putting up stone and bronze memorials to dead heroes they were instructing future generations in patriotism and spurring them to action.  Statues of eminent men, wrote one of them in the 1870s, served “as books to those who gaze upon them”  and the “lessons” they contained were indisputable. Monuments  were the illustrations of a portion of our national story and by contemplating them, claimed another commentator, young Irish men and women would be moved “to scorn delights and live laborious days for ... the salvation of their country.”

But did any of these memorials ever inspire people to do such things? I doubt it.  There is a certain irony in the way that monuments, which are supposed to dominate public spaces and to force their meanings upon passers-by, eventually become invisible to the people they were built to impress.  They are a lot like pieces of furniture in a familiar room and we negotiate our way around, by, or through them with little thought or attention.

Like pieces of furniture as well, we change our opinions about them over time; once-cherished monuments that were built to be revered or admired often become objects of good-natured ridicule.  Thus, Cork’s statue of Father Theobald Mathew, the apostle of temperance, frequently sports a whiskey bottle in its outstretched hand. Dubliners excel in bestowing nicknames upon their statues that arc simultaneously witty, affectionate and derisory. Eamon O’Doherty’s Anna Livia fountain on O’Connell Street. will probably be forever known as “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi”; Jackie McKenna’s chatting housewives on the North Quays are “The Hags with the Bags”; Jane Rynhart’s Molly Malone on Grafton Street is “The Tart with the Cart”; and Marjorie Fitzgibbon’s debonair James Joyce on North Earl Street is “The Prick with the Stick.” When Dublin Corporation announced some . months ago that a tall, needle-like monument would be erected on the site of Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street, it was immediately dubbed “The Stiletto in the Ghetto.”

Other monuments have been treated less kindly.  Edwin Lutyens’ splendid memorial at Islandbridge, Dublin to the Irish dead in the Great War was shamefully neglected until the mid-1990s.  Queen Victoria was unceremoniously dismantled and removed from the forecourt of Leinster House in 1943. After decades of trying nationalists in 1929 finally toppled the statue of William III from the pedestal it had occupied in College Green since 1701.  Dublin’s grand monuments to George II and Admiral Nelson were simply blown up, as were memorials to nationalists including the rebel pikeman in Tralee and the statue of Erin in Dundalk that commemorated the 1798 Rebellion.

Despite the curious fates that sometimes befall their public monuments, Irish people continue to set great store by them and, as Judith Hill abundantly shows, they have always done so. The Irish landscape is strewn with the stone and metal memorials of more than two millennia:
from, pagan statuary, medieval crosses, pillar-stones, and bizarre sheela-na-gigs, to the Georgian, Victorian, and abstract constructions of more modem times.  Hill examines them all and she does so admirably with the aid of more than one hundred black and white illustrations. She set out to write this book with two purposes in mind: to delineate the changing nature of Irish public sculpture over time and to find a common ground between traditional monuments and the modern designs that have proliferated in recent decades. One of the many attributes of her impressive study is the way she bridges the gulf separating conventional and contemporary styles. She does so by concentrating upon the social, political and aesthetic circumstances that are common to them both.  As she remarks the conditions of public sculpture remain the same today as they were previously – there is, for instance, the fact that the sculpture is commissioned and placed by a small, powerful group (the politics of public space) and the audience’s understanding to consider (the projected meaning of the sculpture) - and these tend to be overlooked by those [proponents of contemporary designs who are] - concerned with style and artistic expression.

Hill’s interest in the context of Irish public sculpture results in a book that is nicely balanced between descriptions and analyses of particular pieces of art on the one hand, and narratives of their origins and popular receptions on the other. We learn, for example, about the people who
sponsored certain monuments, what they hoped to achieve in putting them up, the difficulties they encountered along the way, how certain statues were financed, and how the public eventually regarded them. We are also shown the meanings that Irish people have attached to their commemorative sculpture as exemplified in the rituals and ceremonies that often accompanied their formal dedications.

Hill is especially good on the familiar monuments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: those honouring Daniel O’Connell, the Manchester Martyrs, the heroes of the 1798 Rebellion, Charles Stewart Parnell, and the men and women who died in the conflicts of 1914-23.  These topics, are sandwiched between two short introductory chapters that span the period from the Iron Age to the eighteenth century and the book’s final section (about one-third of the whole) on the decades since independence.

Each chapter is conveniently subdivided into sections that correspond with particular subjects, places, and monuments (e.g., “Mid Nineteenth-Century Ireland-Daniel O'Connell: Limerick, Ennis, Dublin; Other Statues in Dublin: Thomas Moore, Oliver Goldsmith, etc.”). arrangement will be a boon to those who turn to the book for information about a specific statue or topic.  They should be aware, however, that this is not meant to be an all-embracing work of reference.  Its main concern is the public sculpture of the three southern provinces and, at that, the book does not claim to be exhaustive.

Hill appends a concluding section to each of her five chapters that cogently summarizes her main points and fits each period that she discusses into a wider context.  Her conclusions-always sensible, vigorously articulated and persuasive-made me wish that she had explored the theoretical dimension of Irish sculpture to an even greater degree than she has.  How, for example, does Irish sculpture and the process of monument-building in Ireland compare with that of other countries in-modem times?  Can Ireland’s colonial and post-colonial experiences as expressed in its public sculpture be related to those of similar cultures?  How has the discourse of Irish public sculpture “worked” in comparison with other cultural signifiers, particularly those of a political nature?
Despite some minor imperfections in the text-a few bumpy passages, a number of typos, and a failure to reference certain illustrations – this book represents an important contribution to our understanding of Ireland’s social and cultural history. It will be the starting point for further research on the long-neglected subject of Irish public sculpture for some time to come’ Gary Owen, Irish Literary Supplement.

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