Enduring Irish sculpture

By Kevin Kiely.

Public sculpture in Ireland includes many monstrosities that are heavy and clumpy in their use of materials and ultimately non-artistic. The heavy-gang includes Edward Delaney, John Behan, Rowan Gillespie and Conor Fallon, but there are plenty of others.

Delaney is egregious; his ‘Wolfe Tone’ and ‘Thomas Davis’ are part of street-lore. Tone begat ‘Tone-henge’ and Davis, with his attendant figures, is ‘the piddlers on the Green’. They are objects of public derision, and the critical establishment alone consistently pays them homage.

Leading art critics Roisín Kennedy, Judith Hill and Peter Murray never question the numbing monolithic dullness. Murray has claimed that Tone and Davis “convey an earthy solidity, a connection with the earth, emphasised by their heavy legs”.

Eamon Delaney in ‘Breaking the Mould’, a lengthy paean to his father Edward Delaney, not surprisingly supports Murray who eulogises his Davis as representing “a farmer in from the fields: a man off the bog and on to a pedestal”. The Davis statue does not reflect this, nor does it invoke the Davis of history.

Eamon Delaney lauds his father’s ‘Davis’ as superior to works by John Henry Foley: “there is none of the shrill theatre of Grattan, or the arrogant certainty of Burke”.

This bludgeoning is untenable. Foley may be eighteenth-century but his O’Connell, Grattan, Burke and Goldsmith retain a transcendent beauty, elegance, and imaginative artistry in execution, expression and realism. Tone and Davis are excessively bulky and heavy. Delaney quotes Aidan Dunne who finds Tone and Davis “frayed by mortality and uncertainty”. But imprecision is Dunne’s actual medium: artspeak.

The problem is that in-depth criticism of sculpture is nowhere found. The Irish Arts Review and the Irish Times are not really in the business of criticism. Circa, and magazines like it, feature art and artists, exalted and carefully ‘criticised’ using quotations from international art critics. Circa’s presumption to interrogate is spurious. When  (recently) the magazine asked the question: “What is the role and value of art criticism at present?”, it passed responsibility, by replying with a question: ‘What art?’

Meanwhile, the RHA and commissioned artists link arms, laughing all the way to the pork barrel in this porcine climate of plastic criticism.

You will not find any adverse critiques of John Behan’s ‘Famine Ship’ that faces Croagh Patrick where the heavy ghost-figures shrouding the three heavy masts are what can only be honestly described as gate-like. ‘The Flight of the Earls’ (Rathmullan, County. Donegal) with its three Irish chieftains on a gangplank of bronze, waving ‘goodbye’ is not evocative in any way of this major historical event. Behan fails the Famine as subject matter, and fails ‘The Flight of the Earls’. He simply does not find any artistic pitch that could be said to be sublime, haunting, or even satisfying.

‘The Flight of the Earls’ was funded by A.J. O’Reilly and in general funding is plentiful, boosted by the OPW and its capital fund. In 2012 this amounted to €352 million. The OPW has a design and project management service for public-sector building, heritage and art projects.

Arts Council payments to sculpture in 2010 amounted to €410,000. County councils play their part in commissioning public works. The Per Cent for Art Scheme, since 1997, “approves the inclusion in budgets for all publicly funded capital construction projects up to 1% as funding for an art project”. The maximum for projects over €12 million is an art budget of €64,000. Public sculpture is generally administered by time-servers without a critical faculty, people like the selection panels, the RHA, and the artists who have lent their names to the pervasive lugubriousness.

Alex Pentek’s ‘Rabbit’ on the Ashbourne Road (in Meath) cost €64,000 and has no distinguishing features whatsoever. In essence it is a giant rusty rabbit that any sheet-metal worker or gate-maker could have designed far more subtly and much more cheaply. Pentek is responsible too for ‘Hedgehog’ costing €113,000 along the Gorey Bypass. ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Hedgehog’ are vaguely figurative though their artistic merit is better described as figmentary. The eight-metre-long, four-and-a-half-metre-tall hedgehog is also funded by Per Cent for Art.

Pentek’s ‘Violin’ on the N5 by-pass around Longford evokes a minimum of imagination to make it a whole. ‘Perpetual Motion’ by Rachael Joynt and Remco de Fouw is a familiar giant ball with road markings outside Naas. The obvious visual statement may be fun, but is innocuous. It is meant to be art. ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ on the Carrickmacross Bypass by David Annand is grotesque. “Inspired” by the words “cavorting on mile-high stilts” from a poem by Patrick Kavanagh, it depicts three ‘green’ life-size adults crudely attached to tilted stilts. Debased.

Figurative iconic sculpture is problematical as exemplified by ‘Joe Dolan’ by Carol Payne. The thickness and density of the statue with an outstretched arm makes Dolan a lumpish Irish tenor not the show-band star of Mullingar. Rory Gallagher in Ballyshannon and Phil Lynnot in Dublin are better iconic renderings. Rory is in a Chuck Berry hunched pose with guitar. Lynnot’s bronzed chic-look with guitar is a stylised effort.

Joyce’s bust in the Green and full-length treatment on Talbot Street by Marjorie Fitzgibbon are both clumsy, heavy and dull – little wonder Dubliners call the latter ‘the prick with the stick’. It cannot compare to the Swiss Joyce in Fluntern Cemetery by Milton Hebald, imaginatively provocative with the cane, book and cigarette midst the cemetery that now holds him.

Edward Delaney's 'Wolfe Tone'
Edward Delaney’s ‘Wolfe Tone’

‘Brendan Behan’ on the Royal Canal by John Coll fails in realist resemblance. The ‘narrative’ of ‘Behan’ looking at a sculpted blackbird perched on the bronze bench is sentimental. The reference to “The Auld Triangle” from ‘The Quare Fellow’ is awkward, using four triangles welded to the bench.

Coll’s ‘Patrick Kavanagh’ is equally ludicrous. The fact that the hands and shoes approximate lifesize dimensions is no claim to artistry. Coll disastrously follows Fitzgibbon’s style which is far better done by her in now peripatetic ‘Molly Malone’ ‘the tart with the cart’. The gurrier versions expose the triteness, even as they grow tiring.

Conor Fallon is also a Titan of Heavy. ‘Pegasus’ at City West, another O’Reilly commission, is a triptych suggesting the mythological horse on three high pillars. Pillar one: horse. Pillar two: horse with wings. Pillar three: horse about to fly. That’s it. Fallon is not good at equine representation or stylisation compared to the mythic-majesty of Andy Scott’s ‘Kelpies’, the 30 metre-high horses on the Forth and  Clyde Canal.

Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Blackrock Dolmen’ (Southside Dublin) perpetuates the Delaney tradition with bronze anaemic figures leaking through their metal and holding a big black rock above their heads. Gillespie’s ‘Yeats’ in Sligo stands on two pipe-legs with a ‘daft’ cloak on which is written lines of poetry. It is an appalling piece of figuration.

Patrick O’Reilly joins the heavy-gang with his bears. A giant bear with a sand bucket and spade, outsized feet and a fierce countenance on the promenade in Greystones, Co Wicklow cost €126,000. Three (almost) similar goofy bronze-bears are outside the 02 in Dublin.

There are also, of course, major works of public sculpture. Jerome Connor’s ‘Robert Emmet’ is internationally renowned; his ‘James Clarence Mangan’ (Stephen’s Green) and the Lusitania memorial in Cobh are part of the national consciousness. Oliver Sheppard’s bronze Cúchulain (despite its dimensions) resonates of 1916 in the GPO. Albert Power’s ‘Pádraic Ó Conaire’ in Eyre Square (Galway) hails from the golden era of Saorstát éireann currency when Percy Metcalfe’s Irish animals were commissioned by WB Yeats and the Commission on Coinage.

Oisín Kelly’s ‘The Children of Lir’ (Garden of Remembrance) has stylistic similarities to his James Larkin, despite the problematic size of the statue’s hands. After Kelly’s work, the artistic rot began in public sculpture with some exceptions, including Éamonn O’Doherty’s ‘James Connolly’ inappropriately or not, thrust under Butt Bridge.

O’Doherty’s ‘Anna Livia’ was relocated to make way for the Dublin Spire, and currently festers above the artificial lake (Croppies’ Memorial Park) downriver near Heuston Station – phallocracy supplanting femininity.  Andrew O’Connor’s ‘Christ the King’ in Dún Laoghaire, and his ‘Victims’ in Merrion Square are astonishing works of art. Rachel Joynt’s ‘Noah’s Egg’ (Belfield) manages to avoid the epidemic lumbering overwroughtness.

Ardee has the ‘Norman Helmet’ that looks like a bus-shelter ready for the scrap heap. Roundabout art tends to the dodgy, as in Locky Morris’s ‘Polestar’ (Letterkenny) costing an estimated €100,000, and basically a kerplonk clump of 104 telegraph poles.

Dolmens, passage graves, stone circles, Iron Age and Bronze Age art, round towers, castles, big Houses and historic buildings we have aplenty.

Most bad public sculpture has less impact than the Marian Grottoes, or the proverbial town-names sculpted in tulips, pansies and begonias. The proliferation of hanging baskets, half-barrels and urns of flowers outside pubs and hotels, flowerbeds in boats and tractor tyres around villages, towns and roundabouts, gives ephemeral relief from much of our sculpture that looks as if it has been illegally dumped, or fallen off the back of a quarryman’s truck.