Unmoving Statues: Public Sculpture In Offaly. By Fergal MacCabe

 

 

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War of Independence Memorial Tullamore, unveiled in 1953

Everywhere in the world today, the role and validity of public art, particularly statues of historical figures, is under scrutiny. At the same time it is the policy of our new Government to place an increased emphasis on urban quality-which presumes the installation of even more public art. This could be a recipe for conflict but much can be learnt from an examination of the history and experience of the provision of sculpture in County Offaly, and its errors and successes.

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Manchester Martyrs Memorial Birr 1894

The Three Tests

I suggest that three criteria, all of which are of course totally subjective, apply to any reconsideration of the role of public art. The first is the continuing historical acceptability of the person or event which is commemorated. In Offaly, it is beyond doubt that the Manchester Martyrs Memorial in Birr or the War of Independence Memorial at the Courthouse in Tullamore would pass that test. The second is the intrinsic artistic quality of the work and ‘Saints and Scholars’ by Maurice Harron on the Tullamore bypass is generally agreed to be both striking and imaginative. Finally, there is the work’s contribution to a planned urban ensemble and in this respect both the Downshire Memorial in Edenderry and the Barnes-McCormack Memorial in Banagher which close vistas or reflect their settings, would qualify. It gets a lot trickier however when a work satisfies some of the criteria but not all.

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Maurice Harron’s Saints and Scholars Tullamore 2009

For example, in our capital city the statue of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, marks the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears his name and having been designed and executed by the greatest Irish sculptor of his day John Henry Foley, it clearly fulfils all three criteria of artistic worth, civic design contribution and an historically enhanced reputation.

Harron Sculpure 1

However, further along the same street the statue of Horatio Nelson failed the public acceptability test and along with its beautiful and blameless Doric pillar, was blown up in 1967.

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Foley’s Third earl unveiled in 1876

Interestingly, Birr provides a precisely similar scenario. The image of the third Earl of Rosse in John’s Mall is also a fine example of Foley’s skill, and the reputation of ‘The Astronomer Earl’ has grown over the years. The statue, by virtue of its scale and location, is an integral part of a well-designed public space. Thus all three criteria are fulfilled.

In nearby Emmet Square stands the finest urban ensemble in Offaly and the only extant example in Ireland of the use of a central column as a focus for a public plaza. Whatever about the artistic merit of his statue which stood atop its elegant Doric pillar, the brutal reputation of the Duke of Cumberland was anathema to many and the discovery of a crack gave a valid excuse for its removal by Birr Town Council in 1915. Had Dublin Corporation adopted the same approach, the column upon which Nelson stood and which contributed to the scale and architectural character of O’Connell Street, might still be with us but as in Birr, we would probably still be debating a suitable replacement to cap it.

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The Duke is gone but the column has survived – 1747

Pure Dynamite

The issue of whether existing public art is still relevant and making a contribution to its locality can sometimes be contentious, but the location and nature of new public art is always pure dynamite, as the persistent vandalism of the Luke Kelly statues in Dublin (whether for aesthetic reasons or not) demonstrates.

Ideally public art requires public consensus and the smaller communities of Offaly who have got together to commission and install works of high artistic quality to celebrate their own local heroes or legends have shown the way in this regard and their approach deserves study and emulation.

Killeigh commemorates its famous local greyhound ‘Mick the Miller’ with a beautiful bronze piece by Elizabeth O’Kane. Cadamstown remembers local boxer Dick McRedmond in a lovely stone bust by Dermot Scully. In Ballycumber the wonderful little ‘Pilgrim’ trudges wearily to Clonmacnoise along the Erry Way in a delightful work by local artists Gerry Dooley and Lorie Quinn.

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It is acknowledged by everyone that in Offaly both semi-State and local authorities have been to the forefront in providing good public art. The ambitious installations provided by Bord na Mona in the Lough Boora Discovery Park make it one of the best sculpture parks in Europe and it is the calling card of Offaly Tourism. Through its operation of the Percent for Art scheme, Offaly County Council has provided many imaginative and successful works in every part of the county, most recently Holger Lonze’s ‘Cruinne’ in Geashill and the ‘Marker Stone’ on top of Croghan Hill by Ciaran Byrne.

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A son of Banagher – Johnny McEvoy

The elephant in the room however, is that almost all of these are in rural, village or remote locations and therefore their theme and siting is relatively uncontentious. A proposal to install a major piece of sculpture in the centre of any of the principal towns of the county on the other hand would immediately raise the questions of where, who, why, by whom and at what cost and inevitably cause a row. Nonetheless, busy central public spaces, both existing and planned, should now be the first choice locations for new artwork and these issues must be faced and a reasonable public consensus sought.

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Edenderry’s progressive landlord – the third marquis of Downshire – 1845

The county capital, Tullamore town centre has only three significant sculptural works, the two long established War Memorials and the 1999 ‘Pot Stills’ in Market Square by Eileen McDonagh. The recent Street Enhancement Scheme which might have provided the opportunity for the installation of a significant new work, instead inexplicably and without giving public notice, required the removal of the Memorial to the Dead of the Great War from O’Connor Square, despite its designation as a Protected Structure. Following an outcry and Ministerial intervention, it was saved but its generous planted setting vanished and it now stands looking a little lost and unhappily compromised by car parking. A more considered and consultative approach to our urban heritage is urgently required

010 Distillery Monument, 1999
Pot  Stills in Market Square 1999
2 Unveiling of the War Memorial at O'Connor Square 1926
Unveiling the Great War memorial in Tullamore in 1926  Widows of those killed were seated

A Phoenix arises?

The installation of a fine new piece of sculpture to adorn the historic centre of Tullamore is long overdue and the imminence of a new town plan presents the opportunity for its delivery. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, the new plan will include a coherent vision for the preservation and enhancement of the town’s architectural heritage.

It might also follow the lead of other local authorities and outline the role that urban art would play in making the centre more attractive and even suggest where new sculpture or installations might be placed. The Offaly County Council Public Art Working Group could then initiate a debate as to appropriate subjects. One relatively uncontentious idea that has been around for years and which would certainly stimulate the imagination of a talented artist, would be that of the Phoenix- the symbol of the town.

This is now the time to start the debate on how Tullamore can celebrate its history, remember those who made a contribution to it and furnish its historic centre with new and exciting public art.

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Banagher’s tribute to the old IRA

Fergal MacCabe

July 2020

 

AN TOSTAL  Art and Archaeology in Tullamore in the 1950s. Fergal MacCabe

 

19540424 OI historical display

 

A Golden Age

Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.

The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.

Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.

This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.

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Sgt John Thomas Cannon of Birr

The 12 June 2020 marks the 98thanniversary of the disbandment of the historic Southern Irish infantry regiments of the British Army at Windsor Castle. Disbandment was brought on by economic cuts to the British Army and in part due to the Anglo-Irish agreement. The Royal Irish Regiment, Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (and South Irish Horse) all surrendered their colours to King George V for safe keeping. The ceremony took place at 11:30am in St. George’s Hall in Windsor Castle. During the ceremony the King made a promise to safe guard these highly prized colours. The ceremony finished with a royal salute and God Save the King played.

The colour party detachments for each regiment consisted of the regiment’s commanding officer, then three officers and three non-commissioned officers (NCO) for the 1stand 2ndbattalion respectively. One of the NCOs on whom this honour fell was John Thomas Cannon of the Leinster Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. This is John’s story.

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Pandemics in Ireland and Spanish Flu cases in Offaly, 1918-19. Dr Tim O’Neill and Offaly History

Last week’s article on the cholera outbreak in Offaly in 1832 attracted a huge readership. This week Dr O’Neill (a Mucklagh, Tullamore native) contributes this piece on Pandemics in Ireland. The Offaly History research team has added some local material on the effects of the Spanish Flu (1918–19) in the county and some pictures by way of further reading. Enjoy and stay positive. Read our  179 articles posted to offalyhistoryblog and catch up on Camus.

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Local Government in Offaly: The county council and marking 120 years of local democracy. Michael Byrne

 

Poor Law Unions from 1838
The development of local government institutions in County Offaly can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century when poor law unions under boards of guardians were established at Roscrea, Birr, Mountmellick, Edenderry and Tullamore. Each union had its workhouse financed by the striking of a poor law rate. The board of guardians, most of whom were elected by the rate payers, were entrusted with the management of the workhouse, but subject to detailed control from a central authority, the poor law commissioners. Continue reading

Francis Hitchcock’s War: Stand To, A Diary of the Trenches and its legacy. By Ruth Barton

 

I first came to Lt Col Francis Clere Hitchcock, OBE, MC via his brother Reginald (Rex). I was writing my biography (Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Hollywood Screen) about the older Hitchcock, and soon realised that one of the defining influences on his life and work was his close relationship with his brother.

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Kinnitty Village about 1910

The Hitchcock family and Kinnitty
The Hitchcocks were born in Dublin, Rex on 18 January 1893, Frank on 15 March 1896. The family moved to Nenagh in 1898, to Borrisokane in 1901, and to Kinnitty in 1903. Their father, Rev. Hitchcock, was a Church of Ireland rector, whose appointment to Kinnitty was prompted by concerns for the health of his delicate wife. Kathleen. Rev. Hitchcock was a man of firm character; alongside his normal parochial duties he was an aficionado of military affairs. He wrote numerous books, some on predictable ecclesiastical matters, others in the vein of the Cultural Revival celebrating old Irish folktales and a pre-colonial past of magic and superstition. He was also a keen boxer, and rigged up a boxing ring in the stables of the rectory at Kinnitty to toughen up the boys. Kathleen, by contrast, was artistic and dreamy, much loved in the parish for her caring manner. Her early death in 1908, when the boys were barely in their teens, threw a pall over the Hitchcock home that Rex for one never fully recovered from. She left behind a material legacy, too, the wonderful wooden carvings on the panels of the pulpit in the Church of Ireland.

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Brigade Activity Reports of the IRA, 1916–23 and Tullamore and Clara in the aftermath of the killing of RIC Sergeant Cronin in October 1920 during the War of Independence. Michael Byrne

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The Brigade Activity Reports (BAR) series of the Military Service (1916–1923) Pensions Collection, released by the Military Archive recently were compiled from 1935 onwards to assist in the verification of individual applications for pensions; nearly all of the reports include brief descriptions of particular operations undertaken or planned including some in Tullamore, the attacks on Clara barracks, Kinnitty, Raheen and more. A new publication, a Guide to the Brigade Activity Reports is available from the Military Archive and a copy can be downloaded there free of charge (hard copy in Offaly History Centre Library). The published guide contains useful essays together with listings of Brigade activity in Offaly, the diversionary attack at Geashill, the killing of Sgt Cronin and the death of Matthew Kane, IRA Volunteer. Last week we looked briefly at the killing of Sergeant Cronin and this week the aftermath. But first a mention of what else is contained in the BAR for Offaly.

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Offaly and the First Air War: Joe Gleeson

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2. D.H.4 bomber, aircrew posing with map (IWM, Q12021)

Offaly had a small but significant part in the early years of military aviation. In September 1913 Offaly was an important base for some of the earliest uses of aircraft in the annual British Army manoeuvres; some of the Royal Flying Corps’ earliest crashes took place in Offaly during those operations. Approximately 85 men who served in the Allied flying services were born or from Offaly, but their impact was far greater than would be expected. Ferbane hosted an operational wartime base at ‘RAF Athlone’, and there was a landing ground at Birr during the 1918-1920 mobilisation period.

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‘Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails'[Howard Bury of Charleville and Belvedere] by Jane Maxwell

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Charles Kenneth Howard Bury of the Royal Irish Rifles, probably c. 1914. Courtesy of David Hutton Bury.

At the beginning of the centenary commemorations for the War, at the Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey Theatre in 2014, President Higgins spoke of the commemorative activities in terms of myth-making and ethical remembering. He remarked that ‘for years the First World War has stood as a blank space in memory for many Irish people – an unspoken gap in the official narratives of this state’. He suggested that ‘literary memoirs written during or after the War can be enabling sources for ethical remembering’ and advocated using the commemorative period to create ‘opportunities to recollect the excluded, to include in our narratives the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past’. In the aftermath of the death in the last few years of all the veterans of the War, to find these stories and these voices we must go back to the archives and seek out the diaries, memoirs letters and photographs of those who served. The Library in Trinity has a fascinating collection of this kind of material, gifted and bequeathed over the decades and, to mark the centenary of the War, the Library decided to publish this material online.

Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails is the name given to the online project which allows free access not only to digitised images of over 1500 pages of WW1 letters and diaries from the Library’s special collections, but transcriptions of the texts are also provided. There are nine war-time authors involved – almost all officers – and altogether they produced three sets of letters, four diaries (including a very brief home-front diary by the single female author among them) and three memoirs (two of which are prisoner-of-war accounts). The authors served on both Western and Eastern fronts, and ranged in age from twenty years of age to thirty-three. Two of them won Military Crosses, and one of them received the DSO having been mentioned in despatches seven times. This was Charles Howard-Bury – the oldest of our authors; he was born in Charleville Castle, Co. Offaly in 1881 and was a career military man who went with the British army to India in 1904. He was present at the Battle of the Somme and was eventually taken prisoner in 1918.

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The by-election and the general election in Offaly in 1918, Michael Byrne

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McCartan for offaly. This picture may be in 1921 or 1922 and not 1918. The feature poster is for the April 1918 by-election.

 

Congratulations to the people of Offaly in having secured as their member Ireland’s Ambassador to America. Their unanimous endorsement of his mission is particularly opportune. Dr McCartan will voice a united Ireland’s demand that the Irish people be given the right of self-determination and will tell the world that Irishmen will not fight as England’s slaves.
De Valera telegram to Dan MacCarthy, Dr Patrick McCartan’s election agent for the North King’s County by-election, April 1918. Irish Independent, 20 April 1918.

This week we publish a day earlier to mark the 100th anniversary of the General Election of  14 December 1918 – a watershed in the history of politics in Ireland. It should be noted that apart from the by-election of 1914 in North King’s County (Banagher-Tullamore-Edenderry district) no opportunity arose for the north King’s County parliamentary voters to go to the ballot box between 1885 and 1922. Notwithstanding all the excitement in 1918 for both the by-election in April and the general election in December Dr McCartan was unopposed. Women who had fought so much for the vote in the pre-war years did not get a chance to exercise the parliamentary franchise in north Offaly until 1922.

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