Photo by Victor Sullivan 2007
Heroes and humour on Ireland’s streets.
We in Ireland have issues about our public statues. Many of them represent standing or mounted heroes of Britain’s colonial past. Some of these have been erased from our view by explosion, which removed Nelson’s Pillar from the heart of Dublin. Others just disappeared, like the statue of Queen Victoria recently unearthed from the President’s Garden in Cork University. Statues of nationalist and religious figures took the place of our former colonial masters. Poets, priests and patriots are now jostling for our attention.
There he stands at the centre of Cork, life-size in bronze, his right hand gently extended, as if to calm us. Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), a priest of the Capuchin Order of St Francis, led a mass-movement of temperance which spread from Cork throughout Ireland, Britain, The United States and beyond. It seems appropriate that he should stand at the head the main street, gazing over the North Channel of the River Lee. His motto Ireland sober is Ireland free still carries a ring of truth.
Time was when most city buses stopped at The Statue and many a nervous lad waited there for his true love to arrive. We Irish don’t take our heroes or their statues too seriously; Father Mathew has sported Cork colours on many a sporting rally. That is an irony, as he was a Tipperary man. Beer bottles have been placed in his extended hand! Another local wag has suggested that Father Mathew is indicating with his hand and saying “I’ve been drinking pints of stout since I was that height.” His delicate feelings are mentioned in a popular ballad.
The smell on Patrick’s Bridge is wicked,
How does Father Mathew stick it?
Here’s up ‘em all says The Boys of Fairhill.
Dublin folk also love to mock their statues and monuments, and each new piece of public art quickly gets a nickname. The Spire which replaced Nelson’s Pillar at the General Post Office is called The Binge Syringe because of the local drugs culture, and more coarsely The Stiffy on the Liffey.
The 6- metre bronze figure of Anna Livia, James Joyce’s mythical female representing the Liffey, reclined voluptuously in a trough of flowing water on O’Connell Street. Very poetic it might be, but the Dubs renamed her The Floozy in the Jacuzzi, and many a drunken reveller joined her in her watery bed. Some of the carryon was outrageous, so she was removed into storage, and later was floated up the Liffey in a mock-heroic ceremony to rest again at Croppy’s Green. There she lies in peace at last near her watery self, her modesty protected by railings.
Literary greats are also gently mocked. A fine bronze of the poet Thomas Moore stands at College Green on a traffic island, with an underground toilet below; Moore’s popular ballad The Meeting of the Waters is the sly name for this site. Oscar Wilde reclines languidly on a large granite boulder at the corner of Merrion Square; even he would have enjoyed the subtitle The Fag on the Crag. The poet Patrick Kavanagh is commemorated seated in bronze by The Grand Canal at Baggot Street Bridge. Given his grumpy manner, The Crank on the Bank is well-deserved.
Dublin’s most faithful chronicler, James Joyce, stands in a characteristic pose, leaning on his cane at the junction of O’Connell and North Earl streets. As this is a family audience, discretion demands that you fill in the blanks of his nickname, The P***k with the Stick. Even Dublin’s most famous mythical character, the street vendor Molly Malone, still wheels her bronze barrow at the foot of Grafton Street, her jaunty pose and décolletage earning the name The Tart with the Cart.
Medieval kings kept a joker or fool at court, and Shakespeare gave these characters wisdom as well as wit. Perhaps wit is wisdom. A special joker’s chair was kept near the throne to ensure that the fool, the innocent, the common man was close at hand to deflate the pretensions of power and fame. A bronze Joker’s Chair stands in the garden of Merrion Square, Dublin as a memorial to one of our finest satirists, the actor Dermot Morgan (1952-1988). The chair stands symbolically empty, inviting comedians of the future to poke fun at our heroes, past and present.