Peter Sirr writes: As I walk down O’Connell Street on a September evening I cross over to inspect the parapet of the bridge in which a small bronze plaque is inset. It reads as follows:
THIS PLAQUE COMMEMORATES
FR. PAT NOISE
ADVISOR TO PEADAR CLANCEY.
HE DIED UNDER SUSPICIOUS
CIRCUMSTANCES WHEN HIS
CARRIAGE PLUNGED INTO THE
LIFFEY ON AUGUST 10TH 1919.
ERECTED BY THE HSTI
To the right of the inscription is a relief of the unfortunate priest’s head. The poor man, I think, plunging into the murky waters of the river. What exactly were the circumstances? Peadar Clancy (the plaque misspells his name) was a republican activist so it’s possible this was an act of the British secret service. Maybe they thought Clancy was in the carriage. So what did they do exactly? How do you cause a carriage to plummet off O’Connell Bridge into the Liffey? It can’t have been easy. And what happened the horses, or the driver? Did they survive? As it happens, we know the answer; we know that, in a sense, everyone survived, because no one died, no one fell into the river, there were no circumstances, suspicious or otherwise, there was not even a Pat Noise, and as for the HSTI, whatever the initials might stand for, the organisation never existed.
Not that anyone noticed, at least for a couple of years after the plaque was set in the bridge. That happened in 2004 when the two hoaxers, dressed as council workers, laid it in the depression left after the removal of the control box for the ill-fated “Millennium Countdown” clock that was installed in 1996. The clock, weighing nearly a thousand kilograms, was placed just below the surface of the Liffey and its illuminated numerals were supposed to count the seconds remaining until the dawn of the millennium. You could have a postcard made showing the exact number of minutes and seconds left. The engineers, however, hadn’t counted on the uncooperativeness of the river. The digital numerals were soon caked with a greenish slime and were barely visible through the dark waters, which was probably not a bad thing as the water seemed to interfere with the clock, which was often wrong. In the end, nine months after its installation, the apparatus was fished out and the citizens counted their own way to the millennium. But the depression remained on the bridge, and eight years later it was quietly filled. Pat Noise from pater noster, our father.
For two years he lay at the heart of the city unnoticed, until a journalist spotted the memorial. Its discovery caused a dilemma for the City Council. It was clearly in breach of planning regulations, and it didn’t even commemorate a real person. Some councillors argued for the substitution of the plaque with a memorial for an actual, recognisable Dubliner. Some were particularly aggrieved that the plaque had lain undetected under their noses. When it seemed likely that it would be removed, Dubliners began laying flowers and ironic tributes on the bridge.
Eventually, at a meeting in December 2006, a motion for the retention of the plaque was put to a meeting of the South Eastern Area Committee in City Hall. There was a certain amount of huffing and puffing; a councillor muttered about the dangers of condoning vandalism, until it was pointed out that the council was itself responsible for gouging a hole out of the bridge and leaving it unfilled; the hoaxers had merely measured the area and inserted the appropriately sized memorial. Another worried about the dangers of setting precedents. What if the city were to be covered with fake memorials? How could we tell the real from the imagined history of the city? What effect might the confusion have on tourism? Imagine the poor Germans and Italians and Americans returning home with their minds addled between hoax and history.
In the end the motion was carried on the grounds that it was a monument to eccentricity and added to the colour of our lives, and so Fr Pat Noise has escaped oblivion and remains inscribed in the civic memory, all the more firmly inscribed, maybe, because he doesn’t exist. The more conscious attempts to represent the city in public art have been much more problematic.
There’s another aspect to the Pat Noise saga. Its language of commemoration, its invoking of republican activism function as a sly reminder of a tradition of commemoration associated with the founding of the state, and a reminder too of the contested nature of commemoration in this city where almost every gesture in stone or bronze is bound to be offensive to someone.
How many statues peer down on the people of the city? How many great figures are locked in the air above the city, perched over the citizens in their stone and bronze gravitas, arms raised, outstretched or folded, in full flight, cloaks and frock coats, swords, scales and trumpets? They stand proudly in the full regalia of great personages and contemplate their achievements, or look back to the glorious day of their unveiling. Or they’re nervous and awkward, stuck forever in their moment. A character in Joyce’s Exiles declares that “All statues are of two kinds … The statue which says: How shall I get down? and the other kind … the statue which says: In my time the dunghill was so high.” They may seem as if they’ll be there forever, but their tenancy isn’t always secure. Many were blown up because they were deemed to have outstayed their welcome, or were more prosaically removed, winched off and hidden away or shipped off to more appreciative climates. And others came to take their places. Right now, I’m in College Green, taking in Edward Delaney’s Thomas Davis. It stands on the spot where William of Orange once sat astride his magnificent horse, his back to Trinity College. Grinling Gibbons’s equestrian monument, erected in 1701, was made of iron, and its strong inner framework was coated with lead. William was crowned with laurel and dressed in suitable classical costume.
The unveiling was a great occasion: a public holiday was declared and all the shops were closed. The church bells rang and the lord mayor and corporation marched in procession from the Tholsel opposite Christchurch to the country suburb of College Green. The procession marched three times around the statue as the city musicians beat their kettledrums and blew their trumpets. The Recorder of Dublin delivered a panegyric to the king after which the Dublin militia fired off a volley. And the crowd wasn’t forgotten either: several hogsheads of claret were set on stilts and opened up.
King and horse began to settle into the city. They absorbed the weather, looked down on the lives of merchants and beggars and observed the ritual procession from the Black Dog Prison in Cornmarket to the gallows in Baggot Street. None of this prevented the statue from being regularly vandalised. First up was a pair of students from the college it turned its back on. On the night of June 25th, 1710, not long before the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, the students Graffon and Vinicome climbed up and covered the king’s face with mud and removed his sword and baton. The corporation immediately put up a substantial reward and the pair were caught. They got six months’ imprisonment, a hefty fine, were expelled from the university and were also ordered to stand before the statue for half an hour with a placard that read: “I stand here for defacing the statue of our glorious Deliverer, the late King William”, although apparently that part of the judgment wasn’t carried out. A new baton was entrusted to the king with due ceremony, but disappeared again four years later.
Then as now there were always street artists lurking in the shadows waiting to intervene, and at midnight on July 3rd, 1805 a man purporting to be a painter approached the watchman and told him he had been sent by the corporation to decorate the statue. The watchman gave him a leg up and went back to his duties as the painter worked long into the night. Eventually, he came down, told the watchman he needed to get more paint, and left, never to return. The city woke to see the king still with the paint bucket round his neck and covered with a mix of grease and tar. More serious attempts were made on the statue as the century continued. In 1836 there were three separate attempts to blow it up, and finally, on April 7th, a bomb went off, smashing all the glass in the neighbourhood and toppling the king from his horse. His legs and arms were broken and the horse was smashed to smithereens. This time two rewards were offered, one by the viceroy and one by the corporation, but no one was caught. The king was duly mended and restored, and a second unveiling took place the following year. The historian from whom I’ve taken these details tells us that on the night of the explosion “a wag called at the house of Sir Philip Crampton, the eminent surgeon, who was believed to be much attached to the society of persons of rank, and told him that a gentleman of high distinction lay near College Green, seriously wounded, and needing his care.” Cramtpon arrived in Church Lane to find the broken iron patient. (The account of the King William statue is taken from Dillon Cosgrave, The Irish Monthly, Vol. 41, no 479 (May 1913), pp 250-256 and Vol 41, no 480 (June 1913), pp 307-313). In total, the statue was bombed six times before the last attempt, in 1929, finally consigned it to the forge for recycling, and the site was razed.
It was replaced, in 1966, by Edward Delaney’s Thomas Davis. Cast in the Fonderia d’Arte in Milan, Delaney’s Davis is a great hulking figure, standing still with long, almost monstrous arms dangling by his side, with four roughly textured bronze heralds (achieved by wrapping the wax models in hemp cord) below him whose trumpets function as waterspouts for the fountain that is also part of the monument. Six bronze panels illustrate Davis’s poems: “The Burial”, “The Famine”, “A Nation Once Again”, “We Must not Fail”, “Tone’s Grave”, “The Eviction” and “Penal Days”. It was unveiled by Éamon de Valera in Easter 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary of the rising. Some took exception to the statue because they felt it didn’t deliver an accurate enough representation of the man. They felt that it was the duty of the artist to replicate the subject’s physical form. The statue is ageless, its mass firmly planted, but Davis was dead at thirty-one, his brief but dazzling career as Young Irelander, propagandist and nationalist poet cut short by scarlet fever. The sculptor concentrated on his own vision of the man and his achievement, maybe reckoning that if a man is to be on a plinth he may as well dominate all before him and ignoring the fact that in life Davis was small in physical stature. “Perhaps in 1966 we are not allowed to say that never since homo sapiens emerged, except in the last stages of dropsy, did a man ever stand upon such legs as Mr. Delaney has given him,” the editorial in The Irish Times fulminated after the unveiling.
But if the commission was a product of a particular moment in the state’s history, the looming presence of Delaney’s vision owed as much to his grounding in postwar German and Italian practice, as well as the physical impression his time in postwar Germany had left on him. He worked with Toni Stadler and Giacomo Manzù (whom he thought “the greatest sculptor in Christendom”). Both of these artists produced work directly influenced by the devastation wrought by the Second World War. Thomas Davis has some of the blocky monumentalism of Stadler’s figures; there’s nothing polished about it, or about the rough heralds with their (malfunctioning) water trumpets. Their twentieth century moment is also a kind of ahistorical timelessness, as if they might have been unearthed from a buried Troy or Nineveh. To critics who took issue with the roughness and scale of his monument – one called it “elephantine-footed” – Delaney retorted: “Truth lies in proportions, not in size.”
There was something spiky and rough about Delaney himself; he was the hard man of Irish sculpture, the man who had, according to legend, turned up at art college without bothering with entrance tests, and who had come back from Germany with a letter of introduction to Jack Yeats from Oskar Kokoschka, which he then tore up on discovering that Yeats had died before he could visit him. He had left school at fourteen, joined a circus in Claremorris, worked for an undertaker’s putting mountings on coffins and was fired for putting the decorative clasps on upside down. He had hung around bohemian Dublin with Brendan Behan. An Arts Council scholarship allowed him to enrol at Akademie der Bildenen Kunst in Munich, and when the money ran out he kept himself going by welding tram tracks at night.
It’s interesting that this commission to celebrate the independence of the state should produce a figure at least partly derived from the ravaged world from which it had kept itself aloof, yet if Ireland and Europe meet in the sculptor’s vision, for me it’s a fruitful encounter. Delaney’s second major commission in the city was the Wolfe Tone monument in Stephen’s Green and I make my way up Grafton Street and down along the Green to look at it. Like everyone else who goes in and out of the park I have been looking at it for years without really seeing it. I see the park, the couriers eating their sandwiches in the plaza in front of Tone, but Tone himself slips past the eye; he has blended into the city in that contradictory way of statuary, their mass strangely invisible. Seeing him requires a deliberate act. I pause by the couriers and stare at the bronze figure and the granite pillars that cause Dubliners to call it Tonehenge. In fact it’s a double monument. Tone is at the front, backed by pillars. On the other side, in the park, is the famine monument. Tone faces a broad plaza and enjoys the light of the city. The famine figures, three emaciated, misshapen Giacometti-like figures, crouch in the dank dark of that corner of the park, disregarded.
Like Davis, Tone is a massive figure, over ten feet tall, square-shouldered, square-jawed, an oversized hand tugging at the collar of his coat. The figure was cast in Delaney’s back yard in Dún Laoghaire using the lost-wax method he had learned in Germany and Italy. His son, Eamon, has written that one of earliest memories is of “Wolfe Tone being lifted by crane from our back garden and over the little houses”. (quoted in Peter Murray, “Refiguring Delaney”, Irish Arts Review, Vol 21 , No 4 [Winter 2004], p 84). As with Davis, the figure is more archetype than particular individual and the conjunction with the famine figures on the other side of the granite columns reminds us that this is as much a commemoration of failure as an icon of nationhood. Not that this prevented it from being attacked. In 1971 the UVF planted a bomb which blew the statue into four pieces. Undaunted, the sculptor welded Tone back together, and made a few improvements. He used the incident to clarify his feeling about his sculpture: “Tone’s is not a victory monument. He wanted all of Ireland independent and united. The failure of Tone’s expeditions led to a decline in national morale and presaged the Famine or Great Hunger. If Tone had succeeded I doubt if the Famine would have been allowed to happen . . .”
Tone and Davis, icons of a young state, young, idealistic heroes who failed. Likewise Emmet, or the 1916 Proclamation signatories. As soon as they’re monumentalised, or turned into train stations or blocks of flats, their youth vanishes, they become ancient, or rather, entirely ageless, their mortality robbed by memorialising art . . .
As I move back to College Green my mind’s eye is filled with a photograph I first saw in Niall McCullough’s Dublin: An Urban History. The worn-looking image shows a huge crowd gathered in College Green around a temporary monument, the Ginchy Cross. The occasion was Remembrance Day, November 11th, and the crowd was marking the participation of the 16th (Irish Division) in the First World War. The cross was originally erected on the Somme to commemorate 4,354 men of the 16th who died in two battles. The generally accepted statistics are that 200,000 Irish soldiers fought in the war and almost 50,000 died. The Dublin Fusiliers alone lost almost 5,000 men in France and Gallipoli. The history of the Irish state, the focus on the commemoration of Easter 1916, and the politicisation of the commemoration of the Great War, pushed that event to the fringes of public recognition until very recently, but the photograph is a reminder of how important it was to Irish people in the decades after the war. The Irish Times report of the 1928 commemoration, which was held in Stephen’s Green, states that 120,000 were present. There were also those who objected, and tried to disrupt the event with a smoke bomb. And then I remember that the statue of William III was blown up on November 11th, 1928, while a simultaneous attack was made on George II in Stephen’s Green.
The timing of the attacks suggests that the attackers were not only striking at remaining monuments of imperialism but at the memory of a war some were determined to erase from the national consciousness. Irish participation in the war was itself deeply political, and bound up with contested identities of the state, so it’s not really surprising that its commemoration should prove divisive. The ceremony itself ended up being banished from the city proper to the limbo of the Phoenix Park. This and the other remembrance ceremonies tended to end with a rendition of “God Save the King” and to be seen effectively as a celebration of empire by other means. The problem was that the state, with its own cherished commemoration rituals, couldn’t find a way of incorporating the Great War into the official memory and the result was that a huge part of the people’s historical experience was swept out to a kind of Phoenix Park of the mind.
Maybe this is what makes the photograph so haunting. We see the bulk of Trinity College and the Bank of Ireland, we see Grattan in full oratorical flight, and the frail-looking wooden cross in the centre, the moveable Cenotaph. But most of all what we see are the crowds crammed into to what McCullough calls the Assembly Room of Dublin, College Green, for a profound civic occasion. The conjunction of the provisional, temporary cross and the permanent, unshakeable statue is striking. The cross, about four metres high, was made from elm timbers from a ruined French farmhouse and had previously been erected between the battlefield villages of Ginchy and Guillemont. It’s now housed in Edward Lutyens’s extraordinary memorial in the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge. The memorial perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of the state’s response to the First World War. On the one had is the fact that the gardens were designed and built with government support to commemorate all 49,000 of the Irish dead in the Great War. The government also donated the site, on the southern side of the Liffey looking across at the Phoenix Park, and even ensured that it was built by a workforce drawn equally from former British army and Irish Army men. This was a generosity that crossed party boundaries. Yet De Valera, having initially agreed to attend the formal unveiling in 1939, pulled out, and the state never got around to opening the memorial, or to seeing that the gardens were properly maintained, and they fell into serious neglect. Eventually, it seemed that the city had forgotten about the beautiful memorial on its edge; it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that they touched the consciousness again and work began on their restoration. The first official opening of the memorial took place on the 90th anniversary of the Somme in 2006, and was attended by President Mary McAleese and representatives of all political parties. You feel sure, looking at the old photograph, that the crowds around that wooden cross a few years after the end of the war would be happy to see its final resting place, and to know that the war, in all its complexity and terrible human cost, has been incorporated into the national memory.
If you’re a statue with any ambition, the place you want to be is O’Connell Street, the biggest theatre and the most contested site of all. The street opens and closes with high drama: at one end the domineering solemnity of John Henry Foley’s O’Connell, at the other one of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s masterpieces, the Parnell Monument, an obelisk of Galway granite at whose base, startlingly close to us, is the statue of Parnell in full oratorical flight. Saint-Gaudens is an interesting figure. He was born in Dublin to a French father and an Irish mother who emigrated to New York when he was six months old. At nineteen he travelled to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. His first big commission, and the one which established his reputation, was a monument to Civil War admiral David Farragut, in New York’s Madison Square. Other commissions included the Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common. Shaw was the colonel in command of the all-black 54th Regiment of the Union Army, who was killed in a failed attempt to capture Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Robert Lowell gives a brilliant description of the relief in “For the Union Dead”:
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
“Their monument,” the poem continues, “sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat …” There were undoubtedly many for whom Parnell’s monument performed the same function. Shaw said once that one Englishman couldn’t open his mouth without offending another; in the same way, at least half of a city is likely to be offended by a new monument. How many love the great silver needle of the Spire towering over O’Connell Street where Nelson’s Pillar used to be? Many cities seem to need a phallic gesture in the centre. For 157 years the phallus was Horatio Nelson on top of a column 134 feet and three inches high. A hundred and sixty eight stone steps led up to the parapet from which, on a clear day, you could see, as well as the spread of the city and its bay, as far north as the Mountains of Mourne. The city had rushed to celebrate the fallen hero years before he appeared in Great Yarmouth and Trafalgar Square, and the unveiling was another of those days when official Dublin put its best foot forward with the obligatory procession of horse and foot yeomanry led by the lord lieutenant, the duke of Richmond, with the provost and fellows of Trinity College and a host of sailors, officers, sheriffs and aldermen. To some, even then, it was an eyesore. The Wide Street Commissioners didn’t want it in what was then Sackville Street, because it effectively divided the street in two and ruined the vista of the city’s major thoroughfare.
Throughout its history there were many proposals to remove or relocate it as it was an obstacle to traffic. Maybe the most memorable suggestion was that made by the waspish Anti-Parnellite MP Tim Healy that not only the Pillar but also all the statues should be removed from the street: “If it is desired to commemorate the dead, the statues ought to be placed somewhere where they will not be in the way of the living.” (A lot of the information here is taken from Micheál Ó Riain, “Nelson’s Pillar: A Controversy That Ran & Ran”, History Ireland, Vol 6, No 4 (Winter 1998), pp 21-25). The end, or at least the beginning of the end, came at 1.32 am on Tuesday morning, October 8th, 1966 when a massive explosion, the work of a group of former IRA volunteers, blew the Pillar in half, leaving seventy feet of truncated column and pedestal. The Irish Army had to be called in to finish the job, a pretty thankless one, and one they made something of a meal of, causing more damage to the surrounding area than the original explosion had done. This was the ignominious end of one the most famous of all Dubliners, thirteen foot of Portland stone – if 150-odd years of leaning on a capstan high above the city is enough to qualify you as a Dubliner. Nelson’s head underwent further indignities, being leased by a group of Dublin art students to a London antique dealer to raise funds for the students’ union, taking part in an ad for ladies’ stockings shot on Killiney beach and even appearing onstage with The Dubliners in the Olympia. It now lies untroubled and at peace in the Civic Museum in South William Street.
Blowing up statues is not for the fainthearted. Nine years before Nelson was toppled from his column, the IRA had assaulted another of John Henry Foley’s works, the fifteen-ton equestrian statue of Field Marshall Viscount Gough (1779-1869) in the Phoenix Park. Gough was depicted in his uniform of colonel of the Guards reviewing his regiment, field-marshal’s baton in his right hand. They had brought over a plastic explosives expert from France to help them accomplish the job, and Gough and his horse were hurled efficiently from their base. In his recreation of the event in Foley’s Asia, a dramatisation of the sculptor and his subjects, Ronan Sheehan has the bombers retire to Chapelizod for a post-explosion meal of tagliatelle and pesto, a fairly unlikely meal in fifties Dublin. The statue ended up in storage at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham; an old photograph shows Gough’s severed head in a cupboard. The base remained intact, and stayed in the park. No one can have been entirely surprised at the assault. The hero of the Peninsular wars and “Hammer of the Sikhs”, even if he was from Limerick, was never likely to be a popular virtual citizen of the city. It’s something of a surprise that the statue was commissioned in the first place. When he died in 1869 his friends had tried to persuade the Corporation to erect a monument in a prominent city location. Carlisle Bridge (O’Connell Bridge), Foster Place or Westmoreland Street were suggested, all of which were vetoed by the corporation. Having him on Carlisle Bridge would have meant having two Foley sculptures of ideological antagonists staring each other down across the Liffey. Foley was less concerned with the politics than with the opportunity to have a go at another big equestrian commission after the success of his Lord Hardinge outside Government House in Calcutta and Sir James Outram, also in Calcutta, often considered his masterpiece. “I need scarcely repeat how gratifying the task would be to me,” he wrote, “and how willing I am to forgo all consideration of profit in my desire to engage myself upon it. I feel that the time has arrived for our native country to add to the memorials of her illustrious dead an Equestrian Statue, and that Lord Gough at once presents a worthy subject for such a memorial.” (quoted in John T Turpin, “The Career and Achievement of John Henry Foley, Sculptor 1818-1874”, Dublin Historical Record, Vol 32, No 2 (March 1979), pp 42-53)
His enthusiasm for the commission contrasts strikingly with the lack of interest he showed in the work most Dubliners know him best for, the O’Connell Monument. When Dublin Corporation ran a competition for the project, Foley didn’t enter it. When the competition failed to produce a winner, the corporation appealed to the Dubliner who was the empire’s leading sculptor, who had produced the statue of Prince Albert in the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, and whose Dublin work included Goldsmith and Burke outside Trinity College, and Henry Grattan in College Green, and eventually he accepted the commission, much to the displeasure of many who thought him too deeply implicated in empire to appreciate the achievement of the Liberator. But the model was enthusiastically accepted when it was exhibited in City Hall in 1867. In the event Foley died before either statue was completed and both were finished by his pupil Thomas Brock. The O’Connell Monument wasn’t unveiled until 1882. Meanwhile the corporation found a site for the Gough statue at a discreet distance from the city, in the Phoenix Park, but the inauguration was a nervous affair, packed with soldiery in case the citizens got out of hand. It was so much an icon of empire that it was in fact subjected to repeated attacks. On Christmas Eve 1944 Gough was beheaded and his sword removed. Twelve years later the right hind leg of the horse was blown off, and the following year the final blow was struck. After nearly thirty years in storage it was eventually sold off to Robert Guinness, but only on condition that it leave the country. Guinness gave it to a descendant of Gough, Sir Humphrey Wakefield, and it’s now in Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, England, having been painstakingly restored by Newcastle blacksmiths.
And that would have been the end of it, another minor saga of unloved imperial statuary, but Gough, or at least his horse, reappeared in Dublin, replicated by artist John Byrne for his sculpture Misneach (the Irish for courage), unveiled in Ballymun in September 2010. The dimensions are the same, and the pose is the same, head down to the side, right leg pawing the air, but this time the rider is a young girl in bronze tracksuit and Velcro-fastened runners, and she’s riding bareback. The image was problematic for some in the local community; the tradition of children riding horses bareback in Ballymun and other working class suburbs isn’t appreciated by everyone, and many in Ballymun are weary of the image, perpetuated for the world to see in The Commitments, where a horse is seen being led to a tower block lift because “the stairs would kill him”. Byrne’s sculpture was commissioned by Breaking Ground, under the Per Cent for Art scheme that was part of the redevelopment of the area (under the terms of the scheme, one per cent of development costs must be spent on art.) Byrne wanted to subvert the tradition of equestrian statuary in Ireland and Europe, and when he found out that the Gough statue had ended up in England he went to Chillingham and got permission to copy the horse. The figure for the rider is a local girl, Toni Marie Shields, chosen from open auditions. She was scanned with 3D software to make the mould, which was then combined with the mould from the model of Gough’s horse to make the bronze sculpture. Byrne then distressed the bronze by applying a green patina at the end of the process, to make it look as if it had been standing out in the weather for a century or two. It’s now in a school in Ballymun and may be transferred to the Main Street if the Metro rail project is completed. Wherever it ends up, it seems entirely fitting that Foley’s Arab deconstructed and re-imagined stallion should be prancing in the city again.
All these illustrious dead. Part of me sympathises with Tim Healy’s impatience with them. What are they doing here, in the middle of the city with their frozen gestures? They inhabit their alternative city, their pigeon space, above the living, Kelly’s Larkin, Father Mathew, Jesus of the taxi drivers, Hibernia, Fidelity and Mercury looking down from Francis Johnston’s GPO, Oliver Sheppard’s dying Cuchulain in the ground floor window. His bust of James Clarence Mangan is in Stephen’s Green, and I never go into the park without going over to inspect it, drawn by its sharp clear lines and the expression somewhere between gentleness and ferocity, with just the single word MANGAN on the base. That’s been there since 1909 but in recent years there’s been a rush to commemorate the city’s writers on the streets. Here, in North Earl Street, is Joyce, swaggering in bronze outside the Kylemore Café. There’s always something strangely literal about statues of writers. Writers, after all, live in their heads; they don’t ride horses or inspect troops, they don’t lift up their arms and orate, unless in the privacy of their bedrooms. Marjorie Fitzgibbon’s bronze is based on a photograph of the author, but for all the jauntiness of the pose, the cane and the broad-brimmed hat, it still looks odd and stilted. It was commissioned by the local businesses, presumably to add a bit of lustre to the street, but North Earl Street doesn’t really need Joyce or anyone else to stand like a sentinel at its gateway. It’s not as bad as the lurid kitsch of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square. Kavanagh sitting on a bench by the Grand Canal, or Brendan Behan at a safe distance on the other side of the city, on the banks of the Royal Canal, work better because they at least depict the writers in a plausible attitude and occupation, staring into water and hatching plans.
The city doesn’t stop at replicating writers, but also attaches their names to new bridges across the Liffey: the Sean O’Casey Bridge, the Samuel Beckett Bridge, the James Joyce Bridge. I’m not sure if this really works either. A street maybe, or a square. A modest plaque in the brickwork. A bridge, though, seems grandiose, a kind of monumentalisation the writers themselves, you feel, might well resist if they had any say.
There have been other attempts to represent writers in the cityscape. The city’s first attempt to bring a writer into the circle of official celebration was the James Joyce Museum in the Martello Tower in Sandycove, the building where the opening of Ulysses is set. Apart from its spectacular location in Sandycove, I think this museum works not least because the building has such a strong imaginative resonance. Joyce only spent a few troubled days there but the fact that it is the site of the opening scene of Ulysses, with Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus gazing down at the waters of the bay, the snotgreen and scrotumtightening sea, makes it a more real place than many carefully preserved writers’ houses with their kitschy appeal to the literal. The museum has a very specific and selective brief: to focus on the life and works of Joyce, and only displaying original material from Joyce’s own time. There are information panels and photographs; in the gunpowder magazine various items are assembled: the death mask, a piece of Nelson’s Pillar, a Clongowes pandybat, a photo of Throwaway, the twenty-to-one outsider who won the 1904 Gold Cup, an empty Plumtree’s Potted Meat pot like the one Bloom finds when he eventually gets home, its contents eaten by Molly Bloom and Boylan. Samuel Beckett presented the museum with Joyce’s famous family waistcoat; Maria Jolas donated his last cane, Sylvia Beach brought photographs, a prospectus for Ulysses, notes in Joyce’s hand. (Much of the information here is taken from Robert Nicholson, “‘Signatures of All Things I Am Here to Read’: The James Joyce Museum at Sandycove”, James Joyce Quarterly, Vol 38, No ¾ (Spring – Summer 2001, pp 293-298). The opening, on Bloomsday 1962, was a gala drink-fuelled Dublin occasion with a huge crowd in attendance, including Maria Jolas, Frances Steloff, Joyce’s sisters, Louis MacNeice, Mary Lavin, Brendan Behan, Anthony Cronin. One of the first curators was the poet Michael Hartnett, from whom Paul Durcan bought his fist copy of Ulysses. Many volunteers helped to staff the tower, including the actor Eamonn Morrissey, who used tell the more credulous visitors that Joyce was imprisoned there by the British for his seditious activities.
This museum was followed many years later by the privately run James Joyce Centre in North Great Georges Street and the James Joyce House of the Dead in Usher Island. And of course there’s the annual Bloomsday celebration, a jolly middle class fancy dress party with a few lectures and performances thrown in. The statue is a further attempt to integrate a writer who spent most of his adult life in exile from his native city into the bustle of its commercial life, but his gaze is upwards, away from the commotion of North Earl Street, and he doesn’t look like a willing participant in the tourist industry. I try to imagine him at the meeting I attended, hosted by the tourism industry, whose main object was to discover ways of monetising “the literature product”.
One institution which tries to do just that is the Dublin Writers’ Museum. Again, the notion of a “writers’ museum” is problematic. It tries to construct a product out of the idea of writers by assembling books, busts, objects: letters, portraits, typewriters, Oliver St John’s Gogarty’s driving goggles, Brendan Behan’s Painters and Decorators Union membership card. “Did you know, for example, that Oscar Wilde was a promising pugilist during his days at Trinity College, and that Samuel Beckett, had he not turned out to be one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, would also have made a name for himself in the TCD cricket first eleven?” It attempts to compress centuries of literary achievement into an easily digestible narrative that can be read off the walls and listened to on the handset that comes with the admission ticket. There is a library, but it consists of locked bookcases, so that what is really on display is the idea of a library, a virtual representation of reading. The Gallery of Writers is a sumptuous Georgian drawing room with an ornate ceiling by Stapleton and portraits of dead writers. Living writers are outside the frame of the narrative. The museum want fixity and certainty, the stasis of the past unruffled by new pretenders; once the panels and objects and audio guide are in place there will be no need for the tourist industry to revisit the exhibit or revise the narrative. It’s the Dead Zoo model: the main work is in the collecting and the installation, but once that’s done you only to polish the cases occasionally.
If this doesn’t do it, then how should a city represent its writers other than by organising festivals and events or displaying their ephemera in museums? One way is to find a way of stitching their texts into the fabric of the city. In 1988, as part of the Millennium celebrations, Robin Buick placed fourteen plaques in city pavements, tracing Leopold Bloom’s movements through the city in the eighth chapter of Ulysses, Lestrygonians. The texts were chosen by Robert Nicholson, the curator of the Joyce Museum. Each plaque, about the size of an A4 sheet of paper and each featuring a bowler-hatted Bloom and brief quotation, is set at a point on his lunchtime route from O’Connell Street to the National Museum via Davy Byrne’s pub.
There’s something attractive about this mapping of the imaginary onto the literal, this plantation of an imagined journey onto the streets of the city. Maybe it’s also attractive because it makes no obvious demands on the citizens: it doesn’t come into their line of light; it’s almost secret. Just to see them you have to shuffle along the street, head down to the pavement, looking for the plaques between the feet of hurrying citizens.
A much louder, though of its nature temporary attempt to map Joyce onto his city was undertaken in 1999 by Frances Hegarty and Andrew Stones when they placed nine fragments of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy rendered in cerise-pink neon at a series of locations around Dublin. The neon was lit both night and day, but it was only at night that the project came alive as Molly’s thoughts came out from Eccles Street to blazon themselves from prominent locations in the city. “I hate an unlucky man …” was placed above a bookmaker’s; “it’d be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it …” looked down from its prominent site on City Hall, while on the side of Trinity College appeared “I wouldn’t give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning …” The quotes chosen are all humorous, sceptical of men and their self-importances. One might be taken as sly critique of the way cities commemorate themselves and their dignitaries: “ … a stranger to Dublin what place was it and so on about the monuments and he tired me out with statues …”
What was maybe most attractive about it all was its projection of the private into the public space, the sense that the city could reflect back the private life of its citizenry through the words of one one its most memorable imagined citizens. It was a reminder, precisely, that a city is the sum of the interior life of its citizens and that one of the functions of art, even public art, its to attempt to represent that. The neon ramblings didn’t want to improve us or set before us a massive icon of nationhood or historical memento. “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us,” Keats said, and this can also be true of public art. As I walk up O’Connell Street I pause to admire another creation of light, Julian Opie’s LED panel on the central median, “Walking Down O’Connell Street”. Each side of the panel shows an animated figure walking down the street, electronic shoppers taking their place in the pedestrian life of the city, mirroring the street’s activity, blending in with it. Opie apparently came up with the idea for the LED panels when he noticed that LED taxi meters in South Korea display a small galloping horse when switched on. His figures in bright orange light, here on the street and in front of the Municipal Gallery in Parnell Square, which commissioned them, are elemental, childlike, yet they move with a fluid sensuousness. They go about their business just like the rest of the city, except that their motion is without destination, circular and repetitive, nothing but motion. How jealous they must make the rest of the street’s figures, frozen forever in a single gesture …