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Monumental undertakings

Turtle Bunbury – The Australian, December 04, 2010

IRELAND’S sculptural legacy plunges deeply into an age when generation after generation of nameless ancestors converted large parts of the once boulder-strewn landscape into a veritable playground of megalithic stone circles, cairns, dolmens and passage graves.

Such works are applauded by today’s visitors as much for their artistic value as functionality and architectural brilliance.

The underground tombs of Newgrange, County Meath, for instance, are as old as the pyramids and famously light up just one morning of the year, on the winter solstice. But when one beholds the aesthetic quirks of the grave, the carefully chiselled spiral circles and animalist inscriptions, Newgrange becomes a work of art. Likewise, who could doubt the sculptural prowess of the Browne’s Hill dolmen in County Carlow, with its 100-tonne granite capstone.

By 500BC, the creators of works such as Newgrange and Browne’s Hill had been subsumed into a Celtic civilisation that eventually extended from Scandinavia to the south of Spain and from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic islands of Ireland. The Celts evolved their sculptural prowess in the La Tene style. Among the most impressive examples of this culture are the Turoe Stone at Bullaun, County Galway, and the Castlestrange Stone near Athleague, County Roscommon.

The Moone High Cross:

The first Christian missionaries recognised their chances of seducing the pagan population would be considerably enhanced if they could link the messages of the Bible to the prevailing Celtic style. This artistic collaboration was particularly apparent on more than 200 High Crosses. On each of these ancient freestanding stone monuments, ancient Celtic motifs and symbols were carved alongside scenes from Genesis and the New Testament. An excellent example is the elaborately decorated Moone High Cross, which stands proudly in County Kildare at an abbey founded by St Columba. Among the 12 images carved on to this 9th-century masterpiece is one depicting the prophet Abraham placing his only son Isaac on a rocky slab with a view to killing him as a show of devotion to God.

In the story, Abraham, distraught but determined, is surprised by an angel who tells him to relax, there is no need to kill your son to prove your love. Instead, the angel directs Abraham’s attention to a fluffy lamb grazing nearby, which he duly grabs and slays. Celtic Christianity was marketing itself as a new, super-liberal religion where you didn’t have to perform human sacrifice to prove your love of God.

The banks along the River Shannon are particularly rich with the legacy of these Celtic Christian times, and the most appropriate place to stay for anyone interested in this age is Ballinderry Park, where owner George Gossip is a wonderful font of knowledge on everything from the carvings at Clonmacnoise and holy sites such as Clonfert and Lorrha to the nearby medieval abbeys and friaries at Clontuskert and Kilconnell. More:

Conolly’s Folly:

Church building aside, Irish sculpture went through something of a lull during the violent, impoverished and plague-ridden Middle Ages.

The victory of the Anglo-Irish Protestants over the Catholic Jacobites in 1691 introduced a new elite who were wealthy enough to become patrons of the arts. Among the earliest of these was Katherine Conolly, whose husband William, an innkeeper’s son from Donegal, was the richest man in the country. His magnificent Palladian residence at Castletown House, Celbridge, County Kildare, remains one of the nation’s greatest treasures.

In 1739, Ireland was plunged into a horrific famine that killed almost 20 per cent of the population. To generate much-needed income for the farmers of Celbridge, Katherine commissioned the erection of a 21.3m-high obelisk which is known today as Conolly’s Folly.

The Cumberland Monument, Birr:

Amid County Offaly’s Slieve Bloom mountains, the handsome town of Birr has always been slightly different, no doubt because of its association with the extraordinary Parsons family of Birr Castle, who invented a helicopter, a speedboat and the world’s largest telescope, all in the 19th century. In the 1740s, the earl of Rosse (head of the Parsons family) was grandmaster of the Irish Freemasons and head of the notorious Hell-Fire Club. In 1747, his cousin Laurence Parsons erected the 16.7m-high Doric column that stands today at the centre of Emmet Square. Atop this massive column was a statue of the duke of Cumberland, the British commander known as the Butcher of Culloden because his soldiers massacred Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters in 1746. The Butcher’s statue was reputedly toppled by vengeful Scottish soldiers stationed in the town in 1915, and the column has remained empty since. The debate still rages about who should go up in the Butcher’s place.

Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen is an Offaly man but, given his recent track record, he is highly unlikely to be immortalised in marble.

Larchill Arcadian Gardens:

The fox-hunting families of Victoria may recall the name of George Watson, the Irishman who founded the Victoria Racing Club and became master of the Melbourne hunt in the mid-19th century. The Watsons were an Irish family of a thickly fox-hunterish bloodline; George’s grandfather killed the last wild Irish wolf. His father was master of the Tullow hunt for an astonishing 62 years and his brother Bob was a wonderfully eccentric master of the Carlow hunt.

While hunting in 1879, Bob’s horse fell at a hazardous fence and broke its neck. When the next two horses dropped dead at the same fence, Bob was struck with a powerful epiphany that he would one day be reincarnated as a fox. He took no chances and prepared for the next world. A grass-covered mound, shaped exactly like a fox’s earth, was built amid the beautiful Arcadian Gardens at his family home in Larchill, County Kildare. A semi-columned temple was pitched on top. Bob then ensured the mound was riddled with escape tunnels, each one carefully tapered so that a fox could just zip through, but a slightly bigger hound could not.

And in his last will and testament, Bob banned fox hunting, in perpetuity, at Larchill.

John Henry Foley:

In 1904, Edward VII visited Dublin to attend the unveiling of a statue of his mother, Queen Victoria, by Irish sculptor John Hughes. When Ireland cast off its colonial ties with Britain, such royal relics were no longer welcome and the Hughes statue was sent as a gift to Australia; the redoubtable Victoria is seated outside Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building.

Victoria is thus many thousands of kilometres away from her other half, a statue of Prince Albert crafted by the great John Henry Foley that stands, rather incongruously, outside Leinster House, the seat of the Irish Republic’s parliament in Dublin. Foley was one of the greatest European sculptors of the 19th century and his works are to be found all over the country, most notably the Daniel O’Connell Monument in Dublin and the Father Mathew statue in Cork City. He also sculpted Albert for the Albert Memorial in London and a series of equestrian statues for Calcutta. His Dublin-based statue of Lord Gough, sometime commander-in-chief of British forces in India, was blown up by a Republican splinter group in the 1950s, prompting a local bawdy ballad that concluded:

For this is the way our “haroes” today / Are challenging England’s might, / With a stab in the back and a midnight attack / On a statue that can’t even shite!

Dublin’s Docklands:

The heart of Dublin city, through which the Liffey River flows, has been transformed in the past decade from an industrial wasteland into an increasingly enigmatic new city quarter. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority has shown a commendable commitment to public sculpture and art, such as at Grand Canal Square where a series of Martha Schwartz-designed red poles and green planters light the way to the exuberant Daniel Libeskind-designed Grand Canal Theatre. Other artistic signature pieces include Rowan Gilespie’s Famine statues outside the Custom House and The Linesman, an enchanting bronze by Dony MacManus depicting a docker hauling on a rope along City Quay.

Turtle Bunbury’s most recent book is Vanishing Ireland: Further Chronicles of a Disappearing World.