Skip to main content

Statues of Empire

Last Sunday I attended a symposium at Dublin Castle about the life and works of John Henry Foley, the sculptor responsible for the omnificent statue of Daniel O’Connell, as well as many other salutes to British military accomplishments. I learned a lot. Including that the last vestiges of this Empire have not been totally eradicated from these shores, and no, I don’t mean Northern Ireland.
Daniel O'Connell. Image: Graham Hickey.
Unfortunately the after-taste of the day was not one of Foley’s achievements but rather that of the Empire, and in particular Ireland’s, and I quote, “pettiness” at their destruction and removal.

The IRA blew up Foley’s equine statue of Gough in Pheonix Park in 1957. Sighs of dismay and tuts of disapproval at republican plebeianism emanated around the room, as too did a proud announcement that Gough, the man decapitated, was in fact... dramatic pause… related to an attendee's family’s inherited estate! Guffaws of joy erupted and I wondered which century I had been transported back into. I was reminded of Georgian cartoons of the Prince Regent overly stuffed and not all that dissimilarly dressed.

Both my British and Irish passports rattled in disgust, the inability to understand the essence of art as symbolism has annoyed me since.

That statues created to demonstrate a foreign Empire’s might could be interpreted as oppression by the conquered nation seemed inconsequential, or perhaps did not register in the first place. Foley was a great sculptor. But it is the sculpted which perturbs, not the creator. Failure to recognise the complexities of political revolutions enacted through the destruction of an artwork is to do a disservice not only to the population in whose company you reside, but also to the sculptor, whose art you profess to esteem. In other words, don’t you get it?

In relation to my own research, I am acutely aware of the British impact of railway creation in Ireland. The anthropological contexts of colonialism, famine, employment, poverty, social and gender behaviours and political and religious upheaval are all symbolised by that which is created by its creators, demonstrated through the physical form of infrastructure and railway architecture.

But this is not to say they are not of importance to Irish history and identity. The remains of ghost stations are emblematic of the socio-economic reforms following Independence, as was their very funding and creation in the first place. But the railway closures, and abandonment in many cases, is not to be scorned by some self-subscribed higher philosophical judgement. Indeed, if “pettiness” is the best argument you can come up with, then destruction and abandonment are the symbolic gestures I would prefer.
Navan Station. Image from Buildings of Ireland. 
Rather, it is for me, the researcher, to unravel these complexities, to understand and interpret them, and not to scorn them. We live in an inherited world of physical and social history. An understanding of which leads to a better judgement for future behaviours.

Failure to recognise this, especially from those in supposed seats of authority, have me symbolically waving my Irish passport every time.