The ordinary traveler probably wouldn’t think of visiting a city, let alone a nation, just to observe its statues. But on our Elderhostel trip to Ireland last August, my wife, Barbara, and I discovered that many of Dublin’s statues are well worth viewing in themselves, and they certainly added significantly to our appreciation of the city.
In fact, Dublin is noted, among its other attractions, for its statuary. One Internet source lists no less than 63 statues dotting the city. Many are indeed of well-known individuals set atop pedestals, and we found a number of abstract sculpture pieces not even accounted for on the list.
The statue of the legendary fishmonger Molly Malone, one of the most popular attractions, was the first to catch our eye. Molly, who in the well-known song hawked fish through Dublin streets by day and may have resorted to prostitution at night, is shown here trim in a low-cut gown pushing her cart. We often walked past this statue, set on a low platform on a busy sidewalk near Trinity College and one end of the Grafton Street pedestrian roadway. Invariably, someone would be clambering up by her cart to pose beside her for a photo.
Dubliners have affectionately created their own humorous titles for a few statues such as this one of Molly. She is irreverently but lovingly called “The Tart with the Cart.”
Another statue that has provoked a tongue-in-cheek title is that of Dublin’s most famous writer, James Joyce. This distinctive bit of statuary can be found north of the River Liffey just off O’Connell Street on Earl Street. There he is leaning on a cane, his feet crossed, and a haughty look on his face. Little wonder that this statue won the sobriquet “The Prick with the Stick.” Conveyed in this statue is an impression of the man’s inner nature as well as his physical appearance, not just a three-dimensional physical portrayal of a person caught stiffly at attention.
A feeling for the personality seemed to be present too in the unusual statue of Oscar Wilde, which we found among the garden-edged walkways in a corner of the Merrion Square Park. Wilde, his statue made up of stones of different colors, is stretched out at his ease upon a granite boulder. On first view, you might think that this figure draped along the ledge was about to get up and move off. From a distance he looked like a real person.
Some other memorable sculptured pieces that Barbara and I found are situated beside the River Liffey and they relate to the river and shipping. Walking on the sidewalk beside the river on the south bank, on our way to the O’Connell Bridge, we almost didn’t see a fragmented sculpture among some trees on the far side of the roadway. Literally sticking up from the pavement are the curved ribs of the bow and the stern of a “Viking Boat,” as this bronze statue is called. Amidships are benches you can sit on to imagine yourself adventuring in such a boat. Dublin was first settled by Vikings in the 9th century, and this was one of the most striking visual reminders we encountered.
Further along City Quay is a life-sized statue of a man facing the river with one knee down on the sidewalk, his other leg extended, body taut, hands grasping a thick rope as if making fast a boat that has just come to rest down at the water level on the other side of the parapet. He is “The Linesman,” complete in the workmen’s garb and cap of another century and looking totally devoted to his responsibility.
Directly across on the north side of the Liffey at Custom House Quay and quite near the Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship is the Famine Memorial, a grouping of six freestanding sculptured human figures and a dog. The horrible emaciation of these tall and gaunt figures is a stark reminder of the potato famine of 1845-1849 in which so many people, if they hadn’t died, made their way to ships for the killing journey to other lands.
Many of the other statues in Dublin help remind the traveler of the important figures in Irish political history. But not all of the political statues are in Dublin. Barbara and I saw a most dramatic sculpture in a small park outside Sligo — the memorial dedicated to the memory of Constance Markievicz. An Irish aristocrat, she became an IRA leader in the Irish War for Independence after World War I. Here she is depicted leading others of her 3rd Western Division of the IRA out of the “jail” of political subjugation into political freedom.
Actually, wherever our trip took us — along the Irish western coast, briefly into Northern Ireland, and then down to Dublin — wonderful statues were found. As our bus took us along the road from one town to another we quite often saw original sculptures, large and small, beautifying a roundabout or making us aware of having entered yet another interesting town.
I must speak of one other sculpture piece that definitely caught our fancy on the road rather than in Dublin: the highly unusual representation of poet William Butler Yeats in the center of Sligo, his hometown. The sculptor made no attempt to create a full-sized, true-to-life likeness of the physical Yeats. Indeed, the arms on this statue were made to look like wings or a cape. The form that the Irish love for Yeats took here was having the exaggerated torso of this figure display examples of what he had written. You could literally say that Yeats was, triumphantly, wrapped in his own words, words that Barbara and I know well and love, though we are not Irish.
Now wherever I go I am looking for the original and unusual in sculptured pieces beyond the merely stiff likeness on a high pedestal yet not just any contemporary abstraction in stone or metal.