Public Sculpture and Nationalism: The Not-Only-Visual Re-Birth of Irish Identity

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The Queen Victoria statue by John Hughes at its original location in Dublin, Ireland, date circa 1908 (photo source National Library of Ireland on The Commons,, no known copyright restrictions)

By Markéta Šonková

The summer of 2017 saw many upheavals. The U.S., too, experienced many. One of them was a public fight over the fate of Confederate statues and monuments. It was the white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Va. which turned violent that renewed attention to these statues. Since then, they have been coming down across the U.S. Public monuments have an interesting role in any society – they represent a link to a nation’s memory and past. However, issues arise when the memory represented by the statues are omnipresent reminders of the grievances of the past. That has been the case not only with the U.S. in 2017, but in other times of national fragility or rebirth. Such as in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century.

Public sculptures, as a part of national cultural heritage, tend to bear signs of political and cultural moods of a particular era. Literature, music, political speeches, or various cultural and national movements, they all possess powerful means of expressing nationalist intentions. However, public sculptures represent one of the most obvious and – at the same time – persistent means of how to preserve or revive history. In Ireland, the reflection of nationalism in public sculptures evolved slowly from the pre-1840s predominantly English imperial themes, through the presence of both national and imperial motifs in the second half of the 19th century, up to the early 20th century purely Irish national themes that followed the creation of the Free State. The last phase also witnessed a destruction or dismantling of those monuments that reflected the British past of Ireland.

The evolution of public monument in Ireland is of a particular interest, as it managed to reflect – within a mere one hundred years – so radical a shift.

The 19th century saw a rise of nationalist movements across Europe. In Ireland, the 19th century additionally saw the creation of a separate Irish cultural and national identity. As such, the connection between the Irish political fight for independence and cultural revival was more than profound. As Declan Kiberd states:

The Queen Victoria statue by John Hughes, currently located outside the Queen Victoria building in downtown Sydney, Australia (photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The relationship between politics and culture in Ireland, by way of contrast, was dialectical. The institution of literature was not just a storehouse of lore and wisdom over centuries for a dispossessed people; it was also a kind of dynamo, gathering energies into focus and releasing more (Kiberd 277). 

Kiberd (277) also highlights that “Ireland’s successful declaration of political separation occurred after, rather than before, those assertions of cultural independence,” which signalled – also in the light of the above-mentioned – a significant connection between the two driving forces, with public monuments playing an important role in those processes. Thus, the 19th century in Europe, as well as in Ireland, can be perceived as “the era of public monument, representing shared values such as patriotic ideals or individual achievements in politics, war or the arts” (Turpin 63). Such monuments, often inspired by French Romantic-Realist style, were very often “naturalistically modelled bronze figures, representing abstract virtues or heroic individuals, [which] had a compelling immediacy of realistic observation, yet this was governed by a larger ideological purpose” (Turpin 63).

Nonetheless, the evolution of public monument in Ireland is of a particular interest, as it managed to reflect – within a mere one hundred years – so radical a shift. First came the shift from public statues celebrating common imperial – that is British – values, such as the statues of William of Orange or all four Georges (O´Dwyer). It was followed by the period of both British and newly emerging Irish national motifs, such as the John Henry Foley’s O’Connell (1) Monument from 1882, along with the memorial of Queen Victoria celebrating her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The evolution concluded after the creation of the Free State, when only Irish statues were being created and the older ones, such as those portraying the English kings, started to be, in the better case scenario, dismantled or sold, such as the one of Queen Victoria, which was shipped off to Australia (The Daily Telegraph), or in the worse case scenario, they were attacked and destroyed (O’Dwyer). It is interesting to note that the anti-British mood in connection to statues and monuments has persisted until recently, as in 1987 a British statue by Antony Gormley was destroyed in Londonderry (McCann).

Historic photo of O’Connell Monument by John Henry Foley, date 1889-1892 (photo source National Library of Ireland on The Commons, Wikimedia Commons, no known copyright restrictions)

In the case of public monuments, the location, just as the motif, constitutes an important element of national identity building. Thomas Davis proposed that in 19th century Ireland, “the erection of a public monument was one of the most direct ways of realising . . . ambition of putting culture to political use” as he noticed that “great figures would [thus] become familiar, inspire collective confidence and right action” (Davis in Hill 55). Further, the importance was vested in style and design. As Judith Hill notes, the statues were supposed to have clear political message, so that “the portrait statues of Irish figures were easily comprehensible to the English and the impression they gave was of a desire for acceptance on largely English terms” (Hill 68). Additionally, the message should have been clearly understandable for both British and the Irish. At the same time, however, the statues should have shown heroism and determination of the Irish people. In effect, the public monuments were designed to be a link between the best from the past – that is of the “indomitable cultural identity going back to Gaelic (and, implicitly, Catholic) roots” (Foster 189) – and its reflection and repetition in modernity. Such attempts were also symbolically reflected in 1916 when “many of the young men who joined the rebels of 1916 did so in belief that they were re-enacting the sacrifice of Cuchalain”  (2) (Kiberd 278).  It is thus no surprise that Oliver Sheppard’s “Death of Cuchulainn” was chosen by Eamon de Valera (3) in the 1930s as the memorial of 1916 Easter Rising (Turpin 73).

Erections or unveilings of those monuments served as an opportunity for politically oriented speeches, which were, too, an essential part of the entire process.

With the establishment of the Free State, the attempts of cultural revival as well as the “former revolutionary attitudes were transformed into official state ideology . . . with consequences for public sculpture and state commissions” (Turpin 62). The politicians were aware of the importance of public presentation of the new ideals, and as Mike Cronin states:  

Beyond the business of politics, the creation of the instruments of governance and order, and the complexities of independent Ireland’s place within international and Anglo-Irish affairs, many Irish politicians and administrators sought to embody the ethos and image of the new state on a variety of public stages (Cronin 396).

That is by public monuments, for example. The prominent authors during the transformation which took place from the late 19th century up to the establishment of the Free State (and onwards) were Oliver Sheppard, John Hughes, and also John Henry Foley. Even though the last one mentioned did not live to see a free Ireland, his O’Connell Monument was one of the most important statues during the dual period of monument building.

O’Connell Monument by John Henry Foley (photo by GrahamH, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Both Sheppard and Hughes shared many features of their early lives. They were both born in the same year, studied at the same place, both were influenced by the French style, and they both “introduced what the British critics of the day called The New Sculpture which swept away any lingering neo-classical tendencies” (Turpin 63). This New Sculpture bore signs of “Romantic-Realist” motifs, which were “ideally suited to ideological subjects in demand by nationalist and unionist patrons. While the New Sculpture was naturalistic it was also symbolist with strong emotional currents that made it ideal as a vehicle for ideological celebration” (Turpin 63). Moreover, Sheppard was also committed to the cultural revival – the literary revival in particular – and thus the entire concept of celebrating everything Irish was in case of his oeuvre fully interconnected. It was particularly reflected in the 1890s, when he sent part of his work with Celtic themes – some of which was based on his literary idols, such as W. B. Yeats – to the exhibitions of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin (Turpin 64).

Turpin points out that after the Free State was established in 1922, the form and shape of the monuments changed again:

Successive Free State governments wished to have visible embodiments of their authority by celebrating their heroes – Sheppard’s O’Higgins represented the steely face of law and order up against political anarchy; Pearse symbolised the inspirational vision of a new state; while Brugha represented the most extreme and ‘pure’ vision of republicanism. (Turpin 73)

As was already mentioned, the importance of the public monument lied not only in the shape, form, and theme of the statue, but the importance also lied in the place where the statue was located. The main town axes, places of maximum visibility, and also the places which were considered to have symbolic value, were chosen for erection of Irish celebratory monuments. Judith Hill even mentions that “sculptural style was less a signifier of political allegiance than site” (Hill 61). In other words, the better the location, the clearer message the statue represented, and the more people would see it or pass by on regular basis, the more probable it was that those very people would start to realize the importance of their national pride and identity.

The public monuments were designed to be a link between the best from the past  and its reflection and repetition in modernity.

Last but not least, erections or unveilings of those monuments served as an opportunity for politically oriented speeches, which were, too, an essential part of the entire process. Just as Nuala C. Johnson mentions that “the significance of these monuments, rests . . . in their popular appeal and the debates that surrounded their construction and unveiling” (Johnson 78), although it is undoubtedly true, just as at any other age, that sometimes those speeches rather exploited the moment to gain support for the political nature of the thing (Turpin). Nevertheless, the above-mentioned processes and elements as a whole helped to create the power the public monument in Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries needed, and ultimately had.

The Dying Cuchulain by Oliver Sheppard (photo by Kman999, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

In May 1843, The Nation wrote:

The time is coming when, in the streets of Dublin, we will have monuments to Irish patriots, to Irish soldiers and to Irish statesmen. We now have statues to William the Dutchman, to the four Georges — all either German by birth or German by feeling — to Nelson, a great admiral, but an Englishman; while not a single statue to any of the many celebrated Irishmen whom their country should honour adorns a street or a square of our beautiful metropolis. (Hill 55)

The time The Nation wrote about had indeed come and the entire transformation took less than a century since the statement was published. Although the change of public monuments was not immediate, it evolved gradually, but lastingly. It naturally came hand in hand with the revival of Irish national, cultural, and political awareness and it is probably thanks to the union of all those elements, why the revival as such was so successful. Therefore, it is always important to realize what public monuments symbolize and what was the message behind their creation and erection to understand their power and why some might find their existence, or mere location, unbearable.

The article builds on the author’s essay written at University College Cork, Ireland in 2012.


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Kiberd, Declan. “Irish Literature and Irish History.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Ed. Roy F. Foster. Oxford University Press, 2001. 275-337. Print.

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“Peterborough: Albert stays on in heart of Dublin.” The Daily Telegraph April 25, 1991. n.pag. ProQuest Central. Database. 21 Jul 2012.

Turpin, John. “Nationalism and Unionist Ideology in the Sculpture of Oliver Sheppard and John Hughes.” The Irish Review Issue 20. Ed. Kevin Barry, Ed. Tom Dunne and Ed. Edna Longley. Cork University Press, 1997. Print.

Daniel O’Connell was Irish nationalist and political leader in the first half of 19th century.

Cúchullain is Irish mythological hero who was the “central figure of the Ulster Cycle, a series of tales revolving around the heroes of the kingdom of Ulster in the early 1st Century.”

He commanded the Easter Rising, was a member of Sinn Féin, founded Fianna Fáil, and ultimately became the 3rd president of Ireland.