Turtle Bunbury

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Rosie's Place, Co. Carlow - A Sculptress at Home

Photographs by James Fennell.

Carlow-born Rosie Rathdonnell first met Luke Kelly in 1972 when The Dubliners were playing to a small crowd in a dingy pub outside Brussels. Rathdonnell was entranced. At the time she was about to seriously boost Levi Strauss's European profile by co-organizing the Miss Levi Jeans Show in Paris's Crazy Horse Saloon; the well-proportioned strippers gamely slipped on the denim. She got hold of The Dubliners schedule and soon the band were singing to a packed out Palais des Beaux-Arts, one of the principal theatres in Brussels. Her subsequent friendship with Kelly was intense, as perhaps it could only have been for the daughter of an Anglo-Irish peer and the radical Dublin working class songsmith. She spent numerous weekends with the band, drinking black pints, talking and singing, wistful dreams, raucous laughter, dusk till dawn.

In 1977, Rathdonnell moved to the sleepy white mountain village of Benhavis in southern Spain. It was time to take it easy. In the tapas bars of Andalusia old men spoke of la guerra civil and life under Franco. For Rathdonnell, the youngest daughter of the 4th Baron Rathdonnell, such a world must have made her unique Irish childhood blur. Distant memories of dour nannys, drunken chauffeurs and moustachioed Majors at Lisnavagh, the family's 300-year-old estate in County Carlow. And then there was her school days, spent latterly in the Tower of London where etched on her bedroom mantelpiece was the farewell signature of Anne Boleyn, imprisoned in the same room on the eve of her execution.

In Spain, Rathdonnell picked up a chisel, sat in front of a chunk of black Andaluz marble and learnt how to sculpt. Creativity was in the blood. At the time her mother, aviation artist Pamela Drew, had permanent works on display at Dublin Airport and RAF bases throughout Britain.

In January 1984, Rathdonnell learnt of Luke Kelly's death. "I couldn't listen to his music for fifteen years", she recalls. Her first commission came fortuitously quick, simultaneously reaffirming Rathdonnell's sense of humour and establishing her as one of Ireland's most interesting sculptors. Ann Moylett of the Downhill Hotel in Ballina asked her to produce a pair of frogs for the hotel's new Frog's Pavilion. The two enchanting frogs - one serpentine, the other lyzara - proved hugely popular. An epidemic of frog sculptures followed fast. Some played golf. Others fished. One or two were adept at handling binoculars and shotguns.

In the late 1980s Rathdonnell began spending more time in her Irish homeland; Luke's majestic voice echoed through her mind. In 1997, she finally took the plunge and set to work. "It was the only way I could come to terms with his death", she says of the bronze she created of Kelly that summer for, John Sheehan, The Dubliner's manager.

Rathdonnell now lives in the Gate Lodge of Lisnavagh. Once the principal entrance, the granite building had been abandoned for many years when she first determined to restore it. The walls were lop-sided and stained black with soot. The only sign of recent activity were the broken cider bottles and cigarette butts piled beneath a wall on which was etched the proverb "Rave to the Grave". Outside, in the spring, two neat rows of daffodils emerged from the undergrowth and set off up the main avenue, as instructed more than a hundred years earlier.

Remarkably, the restoration took just six months. Rathdonnell supervised the project, making moulds for windows, cornices and fireplaces to go with the New Wing, a contemporary glass-roofed extension based on the Tudor Gothic style of the original. A dedicated team of local enthusiasts including roofer John Joblin-Purser, builder Albert Dunphy and ironsmith Seamus Raben completed the work.

Rathdonnell's studio stands at one end of the property and here she busies herself daily with new creations. Her latest work, "Mother Earth", is currently on display with the "Sculpture in Context" exhibition in the National Botanical Gardens. The piece is based on a sheila na gig, a grotesque of Celtic origin in which a woman spreads her vagina. "Some people think this horrendous", says Rathdonnell. "But for the Celts, the essence was much more honest. It was simply showing that the door into our world is through the womb".

Rosie Rathdonnell has lived a captivating life that has come full circle and brought her back to her childhood home. The completeness of it all looks set to keep her as spirited and humorous as she has always been.

This article appeared in The Irish Times Magazine in January 2005.

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