Saturday 20 December 2014

New Tone in the art of fatherhood

After his parents separated, Eamon Delaney needed many years to heal the rift with his father, Eddie, creator of the Wolfe Tone statue on St Stephen's Green. He tells Ciara Dwyer about how a forgotten scrapbook drew the author back into his magical childhood, and how he was finally bowled over by romance

FOR many years, Dublin-born author Eamon Delaney was overwhelmed by his father, the sculptor Eddie Delaney. Everywhere he went he came across his work. (Most people are familiar with his Wolfe Tone statue opposite the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and the Thomas Davis fountain on College Green.)

"If I was reeling home from nightclubs or going into town, I couldn't go through the city without passing his sculptures," he tells me. "They punctuated the landscape and became a source of oedipal frustration for me."

After his parents separated, when Eamon was 17, his relationship with his father went into a decline. During those years, his contact with him was sporadic, if it happened at all. (Eddie had moved to their holiday home in Carraroe and later settled with Anne Gillen, with whom he had two children. He already had five children with Nancy, Eamon's mother.) But the discord was not to last. These days he has a different story to tell.

When Eddie died in September at the age of 79, with Eamon and some of his siblings by his side, the relationship was a happier one, in which father and son had made peace years previously. No longer did he flinch from his father's figures. Instead, he looked at them with renewed admiration.

When Eddie got Alzheimer's disease and moved into a nursing home in Carraroe, Eamon came across a scrapbook in his father's house. It was full of newspaper articles and interviews following the curve of his creativity down through the years. It was then that Eamon, a journalist and novelist, decided to write a book using this material. Breaking the Mould is the result. Although it contains many charming stories of growing up in their Dun Laoghaire home at Stone View Place, with its makeshift foundry at the back and watching the giant Wolfe Tone statue being taken away in a box, the book covers a vast arena. It deals with the Ireland of that time, and puts the events into a social and historical context.

"I wanted to write about my family background, growing up in the milieu of sculpture and how unusual this world was in the Sixties and Seventies with pipers and poets calling by," he says. "It was a magical time and an extraordinary childhood."

Eamon was the eldest of five. When he and his siblings would go to sleep at night they would hear the humming of the ovens and the screech of shovelled coal from the foundry. (His father had built one, without planning permission.) His parents had hippie values but also believed in Victorian self-improvement. While the adults would be in the kitchen eating Carr's crackers with Brie cheese and having passionate discussions about art, Eamon and the rest of the children were told to do their homework.

They had heard their father saying that inspiration didn't automatically come to him between nine and five. Sometimes when Eddie would be telling the kids to do their homework, they would infuriate him by replying gleefully with their version of his line -- inspiration didn't come to them between six and nine.

They weren't allowed to eat chewing gum or boiled sweets, and television was rationed. Eamon credits his mother Nancy for bringing her love of literature into the home. She was always reading American novelists such as Saul Bellow. "My mum was a serious intellect, she still is," he says.

Bits of their father's workshop spilled into the house. "There would be pieces of Perspex and acrylic framers in our bedroom. Our home looked like a Sixties gallery. There were rough spotlights and bits of sculpture and masks on the walls," he tells me.

He describes it in detail in the book. "In our childhood we were surrounded by statues and masks: strange, headless figures and skeletal animals. In the darkness, our surroundings looked like Picasso's Guernica with jagged silhouettes and upheld arms. For years, we slept with the death mask of Austin Clarke, the poet, hanging over our bed."

But for all that, it was a disciplined home. While Eddie would work long hours making his sculptures, Nancy made sure that the children were up in the mornings and ready for school. Eamon tells me that she was a fantastic mother and a great cook. It was no wonder that the children had sophisticated tastes from an early age, turning up their noses at processed cheese and marrowfat peas in their friends' homes and asking for chicken tarragon instead. At home, Nancy would make them delicious Indian and Italian meals.

"Sometimes Garech Browne would be calling with his merry group of pranksters and my parents would say, 'We've got children to raise and there's art to be made'. They still had a good time at art exhibitions but they were very disciplined. We were taught to appreciate art and life and shown how closely they were intertwined."

Eddie taught them how to draw. In school, they were told to put the sky at the top of the page but the sculptor showed his children that the sky was all around. It was about movement. The sun was round, as opposed to a circle with spikes.

"Sometimes if he couldn't find a space, he would park on the path, right in front of Wolfe Tone. He was keeping an eye on it. There was always a bit of wideboy stuff with him." Eamon laughs at his father's brazen ways. Charles Haughey told him that his father was "some man" and the poet John Montague described Eddie as a "force of nature".

Then they would head into the Hendriks Gallery.

"There were always deals. My father wouldn't close a deal immediately. It was kind of like selling a horse, going back and forth. He'd be talking up something, collecting money. Then we'd go around to the Dawson gallery and Davy Byrnes. His sculpture is on the back bar there."

Sunday Independent

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