Last Sunday in the County Mayo village of Cong, an Irish government minister unveiled a bronze statue commemorating John Ford’s 1952 piece of hokum The Quiet Man, much of which was filmed in the immediate area. A few days earlier another government minister had unveiled a bronze statue in Celbridge, County Kildare commemorating Arthur Guinness, founder of the well-known brewery, who grew up in the town.
Politicians are not as a rule renowned for their aesthetic sensibilities, which is just as well since both the works here cited can most generously be described as banal. Until recently we Irish were better known for destroying or deporting old statues than for erecting new ones: in Dublin alone the grievous losses include Grinling Gibbons’ equestrian statue of William III (blown up 1929) and John Van Nost the Younger’s equestrian statue of George II (blown up 1937) as well as Van Nost the Elder’s equestrian statue of George I (sold to Birmingham’s Barber Institute 1937).
Today however like Cadmus’ Spartoí fresh statues keep springing up around the country, the majority of them initiatives by local townspeople with funding provided by individuals and businesses; the current downturn in the national economy has led to a corresponding drop in public art commissions.
One is of course delighted artists are kept in employment and foundries in business. And the desire to pay tribute to a person or occasion of importance within the vicinity is understandable. Yet the standard of much work now appearing across the country ranges from poor to dreadful: it can be stated with confidence that neither Mark Rode nor Jarlath Daly, respectively responsible for the The Quiet Man and Arthur Guinness sculptures, will ever be judged equal to Gibbons or either of the Van Nosts.
At the moment popular taste prefers representational work, statues that look – albeit sometimes rather fuzzily – like their intended subjects. So, for example, sculpture raised to honour sportsmen (very in vogue) always shows them in action, lest we wonder why they are being honoured. An especially unimaginative bronze figure of Thin Lizzie’s Phil Lynott in central Dublin depicts the musician holding his guitar: incidentally it transpires Paul Daly, who made the piece in 2005, had never sculpted anything before.
Abstraction is out of favour, the last such large-scale work being the Spire on the capital’s O’Connell Street. This stands on the site of Nelson’s Pillar, a fine 121 foot high granite Doric column topped by a statue of the admiral. The pillar was detonated in March 1966 by the IRA as its own special contribution to events marking the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The Spire meanwhile is a giant stainless steel knitting needle and leaves as lasting an impression on the spectator as does that implement.
Dublin City Council, which spent €4 million putting it up 10 years ago, entertained delusional hopes the Spire would become an icon in the same way as has the Eiffel Tower for Paris. In fact, the city already possesses a piece of sculpture with which it has become synonymous: Jeanne Rynhart’s truly abysmal 1988 statue commemorating someone who most likely never existed, Molly Malone. Sited at the lower end of retail thoroughfare Grafton Street, the figure’s pneumatic breasts propose Molly as more street walker than street trader. Yet the piece is wildly popular, with tourists forever pausing to be photographed beside the so-called Tart with the Cart.
What Ireland badly needs is its own equivalent of a fourth plinth, onto which all this bronze can be lowered and subjected to quality assessment. The only problem would be that work is being churned out at such speed space would soon become an issue.