Should St Patrick stand again on Tara?
Our most famous statue of St Patrick now lies forgotten, broken and battered in a yard in Co. Meath. Cian Molloy tracks down the statue of St Patrick that once stood on the Hill of Tara and follows the row over finding a replacement
As you drown the shamrock today, spare a thought for the most important statue of St Patrick, Ireland's patron saint, that once stood proudly on the Hill of Tara.
The whereabouts of the statue, once one of the best known landmarks in the country, has been a mystery for some time. But now the Irish Independent has tracked it down. And we have found that our most famous statue of St Patrick now lies forgotten, broken and battered in the corner of a government depot.
The statue, erected in Tara shortly after Catholic emancipation in 1829, commemorated the events of 433AD when St. Patrick lit a bonfire on the nearby hill of Slane on the eve of Easter Sunday.
Lighting such a fire was contrary to the pagan laws of the time which dictated that the first fire lit that night be in Tara. Observing St. Patrick's bonfire from afar, the chief druid of the ancient Gaelic capital predicted that if the flame were not extinguished that night, Christianity would never be extinguished in Ireland.
The saint's bonfire continued burning and the next morning, Easter Sunday, St. Patrick entered Tara to convert the king and his followers to Christianity.
Now the statue commemorating that event lies abandoned in a remote Co. Meath depot owned by Dúchas, the heritage service formally known as the Office of Public Works (OPW). St. Patrick's once fine form now resembles the victim of a gangland killing.
The body is pockmarked by bullet-holes, its hands are missing and the statue has been decapitated the statue is almost a metaphor for the standing of the Church in Celtic Tiger Ireland.
It was removed from Tara in 1992 for refurbishment by the then OPW but in the removal the statue was damaged beyond repair. It was taken to a depot in Trim where it lay for a while, before being moved to another depot in Athcarn, when it was damaged again.
At some point it was also used for ``target practice'' according to a Dúchas spokesman. The spokesman couldn't say who took pot shots at our patron saint or when the statue suffered the gunshot damage.
Following reports that the OPW were not planning to replace the statue, because Tara was a ``pagan'' site, an angry meeting of locals was held at the local Skryne Parish Hall.
At that meeting the local Rathfeigh Historical Society formed the Committee to Restore St. Patrick to Tara and pressure was put on then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht Michael D. Higgins, who was responsible for the OPW.
Following a two-year campaign, Minister Higgins agreed that a competition would be held for a new replacement. But, instead of standing at Rath na Rí, the highest point in the Tara complex, it would stand between the entrance to Tara and the site's new interpretative centre.
``This was the ideal solution, we thought,'' said Dr. Leo Curran, chairman of the Rathfeigh Historical Society. ``St. Patrick would be there to give a Céad Míle Fáilte to visitors and he would be the last thing they saw as they left the site.''
But when the five member judging panel, which had only one local representative,announced the competition's winner in 1997 there was further uproar among locals.
The competition rules had specified that the statue should incorporate traditional features which one would expect to include shamrocks, a harp, a mitre, a crozier and perhaps fleeing snakes. But the winning entry, by sculptor Annette Hennessy, instead was of a shaven headed teenage boy, wearing a short mini-skirt-like kilt and carrying a handbag-shaped bell. She agreed hers was ``not a traditional style statue'' saying it ``acknowledges our Pagan Celtic history''.
Dr. Curran said: ``This was a statue of a young boy, It would have been appropriate for Slemish, (a hill in Co Antrim) where St. Patrick was a slave and a swineherd. But when he arrived in Tara he would have been an older man, dressed as a bishop or priest. You would need an interpreter to know that this design is a statue of St. Patrick.''
According to expert opinion, St. Patrick was a middle-aged man when he entered Tara in the first half of the 5th century. There is some debate about whether he would have worn a mitre, with some historians saying mitres are an invention of the Middle Ages and others arguing that they date back close to the time of the apostles.
But Gerald Parry, secretary Committee to Restore St. Patrick to Tara, said: ``Even if this is St. Patrick as a boy on Slemish mountain, in that outfit he would have frozen during the winter, he would have been paralysed from the knees down.''
The new statue was due to be unveiled on St. Patrick's Day two years ago, but local opposition has prevented this. With the arrival of a new government, the Rathfeigh Historical Society started to lobby Síle de Valera, the Minister of thenewly-named Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, but so farlittle has been achieved. Following a meeting with the minister, Dúchas were ordered to search Ireland to see if a suitable statue of St. Patrick was available elsewhere.
But on Tuesday of last week, eight days before St. Patrick's Day, the historical society were told that ``nationwide trawl'' has failed. Dr. Curran said: ``For the last 12 months we have been getting nowhere. The Minister has told us nothing new in the last 12 months.''
Dr. Curran now believes there will be no statue of St. Patrick at Tara by the dawn of the new Millennium marking 2,000 years of Christianity. He said: ``I believe that the OPW are just waiting for local opposition to die off. I believe the permanent removal of St. Patrick's statue from Tara was pre-planned six years ago by the OPW. Decisions on what is appropriate and inappropriate are being made by bureaucrats.
``I want to know are we living in a bureaucracy or a democracy? We agreed that most of the monuments in Tara are from the pre-Christian era, but St. Patrick should be at the uppermost layer, representing Christian tradition extinguishing paganism.''
Fr. Declan Hurley, secretary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Meath, said: ``The bishop did intervene at one stage, but we haven't heard anything since. I hope that we would see a statue there before the end of the millennium. A statue of Saint Patrick that would do justice to the man himself and his legacy. We would love to see that.''
* Cian Molloy is news editor of the Irish Catholic