Sunday 26 March 2017

the culchie who came in the from the cold

Breaking the Mould: A Story of Art and Ireland by Eamon Delaney (New Island, €16.99)

When I first discovered Eamon Delaney's family background I was amazed. I made the discovery after reading An Accidental Diplomat, his provocative account of the seven years he spent representing Ireland at the UN in New York and working in Dublin on the construction of the Northern peace process. How could such a polished bureaucrat be the son of Eddie Delaney the sculptor?

Eddie, after all, was a wild man. Shock-haired, snaggle-toothed, horny-handed, he dressed like an unemployed docker and was about as diplomatic as a sozzled football hooligan at a joint meeting of the Pioneers and the Legion of Mary.

At first I thought the explanation was the usual progressive-reactionary one -- a bohemian father was getting the two-fingers from a bourgeois son. On second thoughts that Freudian scenario was silly. For one thing, Eamon hadn't played the game according to the Foreign Affairs rules. The powers-that-be in the department were not best pleased that one of their own had spilled the beans, or rather knocked over the pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Unsurprisingly, young Delaney gave up diplomacy and became one of our best journalists.

For another thing, if Eamon was wilder than he seemed, Eddie was, though by no means tame, far from a primitive bogman. He had learnt his trade in post-war Munich and studied with Giovanni Manzu, the sculptor employed by Pope John to cast a pair of doors for St Peter's in Rome.

From a very early age Eddie was a sophisticated operator in the art establishment. Anyone old enough to remember the primness of that establishment will realise how startling it was that a Claremorris culchie still in his 20s could be chosen to represent Ireland at the 1959 Paris Biennale.

Even more startling, by 1966 Delaney had made two of the central icons in our visual history: the Wolfe Tone monument in Stephen's Green and the Thomas Davis statue in College Green.

But Eddie had enemies, too. On the Late Late Show, the painter Thomas Ryan described the Davis as 'an elephantine-footed Frankenstein'. And the Wolfe Tone annoyed less verbally gifted art critics: a gang of Loyalists came down from the North and put a bomb under it. (Delaney promptly rebuilt the damaged figures.)

If An Accidental Diplomat is perhaps the most indiscreet book ever published about our foreign service, Breaking the Mould is the most privately revealing book about Ireland's public art. On the one hand it is an objective and curiously distant investigation of an artist's work. On the other hand, it is a deep and even painful revelation of Eamon's relationship with a remarkable father and in some ways an even more remarkable mother.

The distance and the objectivity are partly accidental. When Eddie began to suffer from Alzheimer's Disease and was moved to a nursing home in Carraroe -- he died there last September, aged 79 -- his son found a scrapbook in the family home containing a hoard of newspaper articles. This material, interlarded with Eamon's memories, supplies the backbone of the book.

The memories are at once precise and comic. Although the Delaney siblings were brought up, in Dun Laoghaire, close to the poverty line, they were rich in culture and European in manners. When other kids thought the marrowfat pea was the height of cuisine, young Eamon was used to having his chicken cooked with tarragon. And if Delaney senior stayed true to his farming roots, it has to be remembered also that the neighbour with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship was the Guinness heir, Garech de Brun. The seeming culchie knew the taste of champagne.

This is a fascinating account of an exciting but troubled upbringing -- by the time Eamon was 17 the family had broken up and for years he hardly spoke to his father. It is also sufficiently well-written to lead one to think that the author has a future in creative writing. Like Colm Toibin, his predecessor as editor of Magill magazine, he has, I think, a novel in him and -- who knows? -- maybe a Booker Prize, too.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, poet, screenwriter and art critic. His Duras Press recently published The Nicotine Cat and Other People by Augustus Young.

Irish Independent

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