Wednesday, May 27, 2015

John Henry Foley

Ireland's Forgotten Sculptor

  by Aidan O'Shea © 2015

My story links the cities of Dublin, London and Cork. The sculpted figure above stands in a recess on the façade of The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It represents a 19th century Irish sculptor whose work is almost forgotten today.
John Henry Foley was born at No. 6 Montgomery Street, Dublin, on 24th May, 1818. Montgomery Street, nicknamed Monto, was a poor and sordid district of the city. His father, Jesse Foley, a native of Winchester, had settled in Dublin where he was employed in a glass factory, and later owned a grocery shop in Mecklenburg Street.  John Henry, his second son, received little education, and advanced in life through his industry and love of reading. Influenced by the example of his elder brother Edward, who had adopted sculpture as a profession, John Henry, aged 13, entered the schools of the Royal Dublin Society. He excelled, winning prizes for modelling and drawing, and aged 15, in 1833 won the society's principal medal. The teenager mastered his craft under the brilliant Edward Smyth at the Royal Dublin Society. 
He joined his brother Edward in London, and in the following year became a student at the Royal Academy, where he devoted himself entirely to sculpture. He settled at 19 Osnaburgh Street, in 1848, where he opened a studio. He won the Academy's silver medal, and in 1839 exhibited his "Death of Abel" and "Innocence," both of which attracted attention. 
John Henry Foley became one the most influential sculptors of the middle decades of the 19th century. As a champion of Britain's imperial values, his breath-taking equestrian masterpieces strode across city squares and parklands from Dublin to Calcutta. Queen Victoria personally requested that he create the statue of her beloved Prince Albert which sits at the core of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. By the age of forty Foley had reached, solely through his own merits, the highest place in his profession. His success was due not only to his artistic gifts, but to his resolution and his enormous capacity for work. 
Foley was, at his best, superior to any of his contemporaries. He threw aside the worn-out imitation of the classical Greco-Roman style. His works show a vitality of human character and historical context, a sense of anatomy, and a decorative feeling, qualities often absent in the lifeless works of others. 

The Cork Connection:

Following the death of Father Theobald Mathew, a proposal to erect a monument in his honour was enthusiastically received by the citizens of Cork, reflecting the respect and affection he had inspired during his lifetime.  The Tallow-born sculptor John Hogan (1800-1858) was chosen to design the monument.  Hogan died before he could execute his design and the commission was then given to John Henry Foley. The result is impressive, heroic and yet humane. The Father Mathew statue was cast in London in the foundry of Mr Prince, Union Street, Southwark.  It was placed on a stone pedestal designed by W. Atkins of Cork.  The unveiling of the statue took place on 10 October 1864 amid scenes of great rejoicing.  'The Statue' has held a special place in the affections of Corkonians ever since, as demonstrated in the year 2000 when a proposal to move the statue to a new site near Winthrop Street was abandoned following protests from the people of Cork.  

The O'Connell commission:

In 1866 Foley was given the commission to execute the O'Connell Monument for Dublin, after much bickering by the fundraising committee and in spite of objections made by a clique against giving the work to "a London artist." He had completed the sketch models and was engaged on the full-sized clay models when his acute illness and death halted the crowning work of his career. The O'Connell monument was finished after Foley's death by his assistant, Thomas Brock. It features a bronze statue 12 feet high, standing on a limestone pedestal and base 28 feet high. At the corners of the base are four seated winged figures 11 feet high, representing Victory by Patriotism, by Fidelity, by Courage and by Eloquence. One of these figures shows bullet holes from the 1916 Rising. On the drum of the pedestal are figures in high relief; Éire, 8 feet high, trampling under foot her discarded fetters, her left hand grasping the Act of Emancipation. Her right hand points upwards to the figure of the Liberator. Éire is surrounded by groups representing the Church and various occupations. Thus Foley could celebrate the resurgent Irish nation as well as the pomp of empire. Sackville Street became O'Connell Street. Modern traffic congestion makes it difficult to fully appreciate the details of this monumental work.

The Albert Memorial:

At the time of his premature death aged 56, Foley's workshop was filled with incomplete commissions. He had for some time suffered from ill-health, a pleural effusion brought on in 1871 from exposure to cold while modelling his group of "Asia" (above), part of The Albert Memorial in London.  Note the confident sculpture group celebrating the height of British imperial power. Foley died in his house, the Priory, Hampstead, on 27th August, 1874, and was buried in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral on the command of Queen Victoria.
In his will, made shortly before his death, he provided for his widow and two unmarried sisters and devised the bulk of his property to the Artists' Benevolent Fund. He bequeathed his casts in his studio to Dublin, to be placed in a gallery in the Royal Dublin Society's house or in its school where he had received his first art teaching. The Society was unable to provide the space, the Corporation of Dublin refused to take charge of the casts, and the National Gallery does not appear to have made any effort to obtain them. Five years after, however, a selection was placed in the hall of Leinster House; others were subsequently added, and the collection is now in the National Museum, Kildare Street. 
Foley's other public works include the fine bronzes of Henry Grattan, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke, all located in College Green, Dublin. In this decade of commemorations, his artistry should not be forgotten.

Monday, May 18, 2015

From My Window

The Efficiency of the State observed.

by Martin Rea  © 2015

I had seen the man with the hat a few times those winter months after I had moved in to where I now still live.  I watched him from my kitchen window as he made his way along the road, leaning heavily on his walking cane, dragging an unwilling leg behind him and forcing himself on and into the rain or the wind, or whatever other impediment the day in question would throw at him.  He was slow but he never stumbled and the wind never managed to knock the black fedora from his head.  When I concentrated on him alone the world was all monochrome: his hat was black, his overcoat was black, his trousers and shoes too; the sky and the light around him were grey; the road he walked on an indeterminate shade between the two.

Then I met him one rainy morning.  I had closed my front door behind me and I could see him coming along his familiar route.  I had a large umbrella with me, a sturdy full-sized one, and I thought I'd wait and walk with him, offer him the shelter of the umbrella for the short time we'd walk together.  I waited for him to reach me and raised the umbrella over both of us.

The skin on his face was rough and yellowed.  He wore a beard which was grey and unevenly trimmed; large blackheads were prominent on his crooked nose.  It was difficult to put an age on the man; he could have been as young as fifty but appeared much older.  None of these details was apparent from my kitchen window.  Taken aback a little by his appearance and demeanour, I struggled to find something to say.

"Bad morning," I said.

"They're all bad around here," he replied.

Those were the only words we exchanged and we walked on in silence until we got to the main road and branched in different directions.  He half nodded in my direction as we parted and I was glad to regain my natural pace and go my own way. I regretted my gesture with the umbrella- it had achieved nothing -and the whole awkward encounter and my callow alacrity to please a stranger made me feel embarrassed for myself.  

Some months later a police car arrived at his block of flats.  Being settled in somewhat more and more familiar by then with the scene and the characters in it, I had, for the most part, given up on looking out the kitchen window.   I had also given up on trying to make conversation with people.   However, I watched the car pull in and stop in front of his building and I stayed at the window to watch some more. Two Guards*, one male and one female were met at the door by a woman who I could see was upset. They accompanied her inside and the door closed behind them.

It was some time before they returned; the female guard was talking into her radio.  They both sat back in their car and nothing happened for a while but they did not drive off either.  Maybe half an hour later a large dark blue car, a station wagon model, appeared.  The driver, a short, round man in a brown suit got out, opened the boot and took out a black leather bag, the sort doctors carry.  The Guards got out of their car, spoke with him for a while and then they entered the building together.  I made a cup of tea and pulled a chair to the window.

As they were still inside a hearse arrived.  It parked behind the station wagon;  a second man sitting in the front next to the driver.  The Guards and the doctor reappeared.  The doctor was writing something, leaning on the bonnet of his car, using it as a desk. He made a short call on his mobile phone.  Then he smartly tore two pages from the pad he was writing on, gave one to the male Guard, one to the driver of the hearse and then, business-like, shook hands with everybody.  He put his bag in the boot of his car, closed the boot sharply, sat into his car and drove off.

The two men from the hearse took a stretcher from the back of their vehicle and went inside with the Guards.  Shortly later they reappeared, deftly carrying the stretcher out the door and they loaded it into the hearse.  The contents of the white, aseptic, plastic body-bag could not have weighed very much as the two average sized men moved it about with ease.  They sat into the hearse and drove off; the guards followed them out of the estate.  

About two weeks after this display of efficiency by the apparatus of the State, a Council truck arrived at the deceased man's flat and in the course of one morning the two workmen had roughly thrown all the contents of the flat, everything the man had owned, into the truck.  In the afternoon they returned and filled the truck with clear plastic bags full of beer cans and other drinks containers.  There must have been thousands of beer cans there because they needed to make three journeys to take them all away.

*  Note:  'Guards' are the Irish civil police force, the word is from the Irish, 'An Gárda Siochána',  literally  the Guardians of the Peace.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Speak for Them

© 2015 Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara

Night and day keep
tugging at sleeves
who dares run out
join in their play?

Who reads the mind
of autumn skies
when cities bathe
in noisy grime?

Who waits on old
gaunt foreigners
hawking roses
in restaurants?

What silence sings
when drivers ask
their car radios
to speak for them?

Who takes the hint
of those who breathe
all is over
we are leaving?

Who will whisper
to late lovers
no longer wait
you are the time?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Fathers Seeking Sons

by Musetta Joyce   ©2014

By the Eighties the motorway from Messina to Patti cut the journey down to under an hour, and private coach companies made it more convenient than the train. After a frustrating morning at the university I had just found a seat at the front of the coach and I was all set to enjoy the scenery when an elderly gentleman asked politely if he could sit beside me. It wasn't long before he began to speak in wobbly English.
'You are a professoressa I think, yes? I see you often. English?'
'Yes, I teach, but I'm Irish.'
'Ah, Irlanda del Nord? We see it much on the television. Many bombs!'
'No, the Republic. No bombs.'
'Capisco. Please excuse my English; she is bad; I want speak better but I am old.'
'Your English is much better than most of my students at the University after their years of schooling. How did you learn?'
'I was in un tipo di prigione, how you say?'
'Prison?' I looked at him cautiously; he didn't seem very dangerous.
'It was in the war. I fight with Mussolini. He is bad man and I not want fight but is not possible refuse. The English catch me and keep me in England.'
'You were a prisoner of war? Was it terrible?'
'We have compensazioni. We are free sometimes. I meet English girlfriend.' 
'How did you manage to meet girls? Weren't you locked up?'
'Not always. Englishmen all away fighting so they use Italiani for heavy work after Italy join with Americans and English.'
The sunshine returned to beam through the windows as we finally emerged from the long tunnels piercing the hills surrounding Messina to rush along the flat northern coast, bypassing seaside villages. 
'So, you enjoyed your days in England, did you?'
'I have, how you say, a love story. Is born a baby; my son.'
'But – you didn't marry her?'
'I am not free. I marry before the war. We have two sons.'
'What about your wife? What did she say when she heard about this other child?'
'She never know; nobody in Sicily know; it is my secret pain.'
'Your pain? What about your girlfriend left on her own to cope with the baby?'
'I am very sorry but I can do nothing. Every day I think and worry about this my other son but I cannot break the heart of my wife.'
'Hmm! Did you keep in touch?'
'Actually, you are the second man to tell me about conceiving a child in England during the war. Two men in our small town! How many others must there be all over Italy?'
'Another man? Who is he? I like to know him.'
'I'm sorry but he told me in strict confidence; his family have no idea either. He gave me the name of the woman once when I was passing through London and asked me to try to find her. But the details were too few and it was impossible. He's dead now.  I often see his son and sometimes I wonder if I should tell him that he has a brother somewhere in England.'
We sat in silence for a while as the coach passed Milazzo on our right, with its refinery chimneys sending flames and fumes to pollute the mild spring air while, on our left, distant Etna puffed smoke signals into the cloudless sky. 
'Perhaps you do good to tell him. It can be a bella sorpresa to discover to have another brother. My sons, they are very happy.'
'You mean…?
'Yes, when my wife die, I go to England to find my son, Mario. His mother, she call him after me.'
'And, did you manage to find him?'
'Is not easy. Mario, he have twenty-five years then. His mother, she marry, but Mario not happy with this man and he run away long time ago. After much search I find the mother and she give me his address in London, but Mario, he go away again. I am one month there before I find him finalmente.'
'What was his reaction when he met you? Was he angry?'
'No, he is molto sorpreso. Always I fear he not pardon me but, no, he is very happy. His mother, she tell him I am Sicilian. He study a little Italian and his girlfriend, she speak good and translate for us.'
'It must have been marvellous to find one another after all those years! What luck!'
'No luck, it is un miracolo. I walk up the mountain to thank the Madonna of Tindari!'
'And … have you kept in touch?'
'Naturalmente. My other sons, they have the restaurant in America. I think maybe they angry but, when they come home for vacation and meet Mario, they are contentissimo and invite him to join them.'
'Did he go?'
'Si, si! It is now six years they work together.'
'And what about yourself? Do you go to stay with them in America?'
'Per sfortuna I cannot travel in the air because my bad experience in the war. But every year they all come home to visit me.'
'And the rest of the year you live alone? How sad! Still, it must be a great relief to have been able to meet your son and make it up to him for having abandoned him for all those years! Such a pity you can't all live in the same country though.'
'Ah, questa e la vita. The life, she is never perfect. Always there is something missing. Only in Paradiso is true happiness. But for now I am contento, for I find Mario and he pardon me. For too many years I carry the weight but now my heart is light again.'
'What about Mario's mother? Didn't you care about her any more?'
'She change. She find another man, but Mario, he not find another father before he meet me.'
'Now he has a real family at last, and I know well how important family is here.'
'Sangue del mio sangue – blood of my blood! Too many years not knowing.'
'Loving one's children is like an extension of loving oneself though, isn't it?'
'Maybe we love the image of ourselves in our children, but we want them to be better. That is evoluzione, progresso, no?'
The coach was now racing through the long dark tunnel beneath mount Tindari with its miraculous Black Madonna enshrined inside her garish Sanctuary. Soon we would be home. 
'Mario and my other sons Gianni and Stefano come in summer. Maybe I present you to them, yes?'
'I'd love to meet them. Thank you for sharing your story with me.'
'Prego, my pleasure. Stories are for sharing, no?'

Many years later I met a buxom blond woman from London at a Living Magically retreat in the Lake District, and she told me her story:
'I had always suspected that my mother's husband wasn't my real father, although he always insisted that he was. I spoke to people at the London College of Psychic Studies and they told me I might very well be right in my intuition. But it was only after her husband died that I managed to get the truth from my mother, after plying her with a lot of sherry. She told me about her love affair with an Italian prisoner of war in the Forties. When she told him that she was pregnant he confessed that he was already married and had a family back in Italy who were eagerly awaiting his return. Well, I wanted to try to find him, so I contacted a solicitor who was familiar with Italy and he suggested putting an advertisement in the Familia Cristiana, a Catholic monthly magazine that was very popular throughout Italy. It took a few months before I got a reply and then, as soon as I could, I flew to meet my real father at last. He lived in a small town near Venice, and the whole family couldn't have been more welcoming. They were so excited to meet me. That was the first visit. Unfortunately, on my second visit I got a much cooler reception and I'm afraid I haven't been back since they informed me of my father's death.'
'I expect it had to do with the inheritance laws in Italy. They made it illegal to exclude illegitimate children from sharing in their parent's estates,' I explained. 'They might have feared you wanted money or property.'
'Well, anyway, I was glad to have met my real father at last – and to discover that my instinct had been right.'

More than half a million Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen who were prisoners of war between 1940 and 1947, were used as a labour force especially after 1943 when Italy joined the Allied Forces and were no longer enemies but were kept in Britain or sent to the Commonwealth countries. 
The children born to unwed mothers at the time came to be known as 'War Babies.'