Tuesday 27 June 2017

Canada is the north American friend of Ireland we sometimes overlook

Ireland Park on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto, whose tragic famine figures depict the flight across the Atlantic
Ireland Park on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto, whose tragic famine figures depict the flight across the Atlantic
David McWilliams

David McWilliams

Perhaps the most haunting piece of sculpture in Ireland is the group of gaunt, skeletal famine figures on Dublin's docklands. They are simply walking, to somewhere, to a better place. Sculptor Rowan Gillespie has captured these desperate images of tortured souls, their defeated faces and sunken eyes. Gillespie was inspired by sketches drawn by charitable Quakers working in rural Cork during the winter of 1846. Years ago, when I first saw these ghoulish figures in the Docklands, I was immediately transported back to the desperate Ireland of our ancestors. Maybe that's what great art does, it gets under your skin.

Gillespie's famine statues inspired the novelist Joseph O'Connor to write his brilliant famine novel "The Star of the Sea".

When O'Connor saw these images of starving, helpless people, walking towards something, just walking, he began to conceive his characters in what was to be one of the finest Irish novels written in the past 50 years.

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