Statues are big news these times. Beginning in the United States, any memorial that could be even tenuously connected to some form of racism became fair game for the iconoclasts of the ultra-left. That quickly extended to attacks on Christian churches in Chile and other countries.
Apart from a half-hearted fuss about the Seán Russell statue in Fairview Park, and the Shelbourne Hotel making an absolute show of itself regarding two statues at its entrance on Stephen’s Green, Ireland has been thankfully mainly free of such infantilism. A NGO-hack-inspired petition to remove all traces of John Mitchel, the 19th century Young Irelander and nationalist from his home town in Newry, failed miserably.
Statues, however, can still be contentious it seems. One example of this has been where a proposal, overwhelmingly supported by the local community, to have a statue of Kevin Barry commissioned for Kildonan Park in Finglas has been rejected by Sculpture Dublin which was tasked by Dublin City Council with deciding on a suitable piece of public art for the proposed redevelopment of this recreational area. Of the thirteen submissions made on the piece of public art, the Kevin Barry proposal was just one of two not to even to get past the first stage, despite a local petition supporting the Barry proposal gathering support from 84% of doors knocked.
Kildonan Park is one of six sites in the City chosen as part of the art initiative launched last summer. Three artists were short-listed by Sculpture Dublin last November last for the Finglas piece. They were selected by a panel consisting of City Council officials, one external arts expert and three local representatives.
Sculpture Dublin then nominated their own community representatives, two of whom are executive members of Finglas United soccer club, the chairman John Fox and local Fianna Fail Councillor Keith Connolly (PRO) with the third being Mary McDermott of the Northway Estate residents association. All three of these refuse to endorse the proposal made by the local community that Kevin Barry be the subject of a statue in the area.
It all reeks of the supercilious attitude which mars so much of these public art endeavours. The locals want a statue to honour Kevin Barry. Instead they are told what’s better for them.
The Kevin Barry Memorial Committee (KMBC) in Finglas conducted a socially-distanced canvas of residents, a copy of which Gript has seen, and it overwhelmingly approved a proposal to erect a statue of Barry.
Of 1,134 households canvassed around Kildonan Park, 948 signed their support for the statue of Kevin Barry, 184 were not in, and just two refused. Gript has also seen a letter from a representative of the Barry family indicating extensive support within the family for the proposal. Several roads in the area were named after Barry when the houses were built by the then Dublin Corporation, forming an historic link to this part of Finglas.
Members of the community were therefore keen to mark Finglas’s historical heritage in a suitable fashion. Their proposal was for a statue depicting Barry and his dog returning from a hurling match, with an artist’s impression (below) depicting how this would look. It is located in a place of recreation and Kevin Barry as a young athlete stresses that aspect of his life alongside the local connection through street names, and place it clearly separate from the official Decade of Commemorations project. The community proposal requires a classically designed piece of public art, rather than what might be termed “contemporary”, and that was at no stage ruled out in the original Sculpture Dublin commission for Kildonan Park.
In their communication to Gript on behalf of Sculpture Dublin, Q4 Public Relations stated that the project would be guided by the commissioned artists, “informed by both the site in which the sculpture will be located and engagement with the local community.”
However, despite the considerable effort expended by the local committee to foster that engagement and consent so as to communicate its wishes, Sculpture Dublin rejected their proposal and suggested that it might better fit within the remit of the City Council’s Decade of Commemorations programme. How the two could not be reconciled is not explained. Nor the fact that as the Committee pointed out, the origin of their proposal is directly linked to the City Council’s proposed upgrade of Kildonan Park to increase the sporting diversity of this local public amenity.
Part of the KBMC proposal includes provision for a running track to facilitate both local schools and runners, this being a notably under-developed aspect of sports in Ireland. The committee states that “confining the use of the park to one type of sport excludes the majority of the local community.” Especially given that the park is publicly owned and not by any private club which uses the playing fields. The depiction of Barry as a young athlete complements that, they say.
Gript contacted all of the local Councillors and only Councillor Keith Connolly responded. He told us that he is satisfied with the local engagement through the Sculpture Dublin process and that the consultation is ongoing. With regards to the nature of that consultation, the Kevin Barry Committee in a letter to City Council CEO, states that their proposal accompanied by the petition and an outline of what the statue would look like was not accepted by Sculpture Dublin, and that the three artists short-listed by Sculpture Dublin were not aware of the proposal from the local community even though they commented favourably on it when they were made aware of the details.
The KBMC also refer to the importance of “acceptance and ownership of public art which is the greatest bulwark against vandalism and anti-social behaviour.” That is a very valid point and is relevant to a lot of what Dublin City Council has seen fit to impose on the living landscape of the city in recent decades. While some work has been excellent and melds with the heritage of the city, for example the Famine memorial on the north quays, others are visual and cultural intrusions.
The Spire is a good example where proposals to have something that melds with the history of the O’Connell Street area; scene of the 1916 Easter Rising and of momentous events in the history of the labour and national movements stretching back several hundred years were rejected in favour something that Desmond Fennell said would have been more suitable to the other Dublin, Dúbh Linn/Blackpool, the English seaside resort. Which, he said, reflected “an honest statement of the Republic’s state of mind after its prudent self-effacement.”
And that seems partly to be the issue, or one of them at least. The City Council said that it wanted something that would “reflect present day Finglas.” Well, present day Finglas people who would view and pass whatever is placed in “their” park told him what they wanted – what they think reflects their history and heritage. The attitude of some officials is perhaps captured in the comment by one City Council official at a meeting of the Liam Mellowes working group in City Hall in 2017. When the proposed location of the Liam Mellowes Memorial Garden was suggested to the City Council officials, one senior local official stated “what would the people up there know about art.”
For many non Finglas people, that present day reality might be thought to be reflected by a TV documentary centred on the local Garda response to what is a serious problem of anti-social and criminal behaviour. But that by no means reflects even part of the entire reality of Finglas. Someone once said that the best way to undermine a people’s self-worth and sense of community is to destroy or deny its cultural manifestations. Kevin Barry is part of that, and the desire to remember him is shared across the spectrum of Irish life with some outliers on the anti-nationalist left and right.
So what would the City Council have reflect “present day Finglas?” A statue of a local drug dealer? Some abstract depiction of chaos to subliminally suggest that actually you are living in some alienated antiseptic zone where you will have as little as possible to remind you of greater strivings, of the “courage and creative ambition” which Sculpture Dublin states is an intrinsic part of what it wishes to depict and which is an integral part of the best parts of the Irish people.
There are a number of things that emerge from this. Firstly, the sheer arrogance of the DCC in ignoring even their own criteria regarding “community engagement” is startling. Secondly, many elected representatives appears hostile to a local community initiative when those initiatives are outside of their control. This is evident even where community activism has been the basis for their being elected in the first instance.
There was also, it would appear, an attempt by some to imply some political influence. The KBMC stresses that not only is it non-political but its members are also local residents working on behalf of the local community and funding their efforts from their own resources to affect greater social and community cohesion in their local area.
Their proposal, unlike the machinations of Sculpture Dublin, has the majority consent among the local community and has been on public display throughout Finglas village and other shopping locations in the area for the past three months. Sculpture Dublin who rejected this proposal in September of 2020 have yet to produce a proposal of any shape or form with all their talk of public engagement but no public consent.