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Wednesday 17 July 2019

Zorro of the Liffey turned junk into treasure

On his death, the eccentric artist who had squatted in a Georgian townhouse for 20 years is remembered fondly by Liam Collins

Gerard Dowling in no 47 Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. Photo: Graham Hughes
Gerard Dowling in no 47 Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. Photo: Graham Hughes
A VISION THING: Ger Dowling puts the finishing touches to his ‘dodecagram’ which was made of traffic cones salvaged from the Liffey and took three years to build. Photo: Julien Behal
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

When his mother was pregnant with triplets, Gerard Dowling and his brother Tony were put into an orphanage for a couple of weeks. Ger was scared by the experience and ran away - "and he's been running away ever since", said his sister Roisin after his funeral in Dublin last Wednesday.

Gerard Dowling was an artist, perhaps best known for squatting for two decades in a €2m Georgian townhouse in Middle Abbey Street in central Dublin, opposite the side entrance to Arnotts department store.

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He decorated its exterior with multi-coloured motifs and could often be seen sitting on the stone steps, unsmiling and invariably smoking a cigarette.

He sported a Zapata-style moustache and dressed in black from head to toe, from the wide-brimmed hat to his shoes.

As he stood at the front door of what looked, and indeed was, a semi-derelict four-storey townhouse, he would spin the reclaimed wheels of the bicycles that adorned the railings to arouse interest from passers-by.

He was also on a long-term mission to drive the city council demented, as every effort it made to evict him foundered.

His appearance earned him the title Zorro of the Liffey from Italian waiters at Botticelli, the restaurant at the other side of the river in Temple Bar, where he often ate pizza and drank a glass of wine in solitude.

Julien Behal borrowed that title for a short film noir, which was shown at Dowling's funeral in the Garden Chapel at Mount Jerome Crematorium in Dublin.

"He lived in his universe, one not familiar to ours," his sister Roisin told the congregation, which was surprisingly large as Dowling could sometimes be as taciturn and difficult as the character from Patrick Kavanagh's poem If Ever You Go To Dublin Town, which was recited during the service.

He knew that posterity had no use

For anything but the soul,

The lines that speak the passionate heart,

The spirit that lives alone.

O he was a lone one,

Fol do the di do,

O he was a lone one,

And I tell you.

Dowling had a secret reason for dressing in black. He spent decades in mourning for one of his triplet sisters, Theresa - born when he first began running away from authority. She was brutally murdered in 1971. He sometimes made oblique references to the dark family tragedy but it was only with his death, at the age of 68, that the full horror finally emerged.

Theresa (16) had been walking from The Star cinema in Crumlin, where she worked as an usherette, to catch a bus to the family home in Ballyfermot. A man appeared out of nowhere, doused her in petrol and set her alight. She died a horrible death.

Ten years later, in 1981, a garda knocked on their door to tell them a man called Kevin Irwin, who had been arrested for stabbing a priest, had confessed to the horrific murder of Theresa a decade earlier. He was tried and committed to a psychiatric unit and has since died.

"The family all scattered after that," said Roisin.

By then Dowling had already left for London, working on the Underground and selling paint. But most of his time was spent going around galleries like the Tate, looking at art and absorbing the influences of painters and sculptors who inspired him to become an artist.

Back in Dublin, he painted on the streets, busking for money and drawing the dole.

In the 1980s he moved into 47 Middle Abbey Street, a lone residential house in a busy commercial street, with different floors occupied by different tenants - rare enough in that area of town.

Among his neighbours were two old ladies living in what he would later describe as "a Georgian time warp".

Gradually the other tenants either died or moved on and Dowling took possession of the building. As it sank into ruined grandeur, he began filling its rooms with detritus from the nearby River Liffey - old rusted barrels, bits of discarded bicycles, iron chains and, he claimed, bits of the Ha'penny Bridge, which he gathered on scavenging adventures.

"The seagulls wake me up in the morning," he said in the six-minute film Zorro of the Liffey.

After climbing down the metal steps that once adorned the quay wall, he was on what he called "the bedrock of the city", the ugly gut of the Liffey at low tide.

There, in the early-morning light, amid the mud and debris, he went about his art reclamation with a sword-like implement he had made, digging out items of interest he could haul on to the quays and drag down Liffey Street to use in his eccentric artistic creations.

Passing Dubliners mostly ignored him, but sometimes people would call down, asking if he needed help, thinking he had fallen to the smelly riverbed. Others, he said, shouted, "There's that nutcase of an artist."

He made metal masks and puppets and fashioned old dustbin lids into Celtic designs.

His creations included razor wire studded with children's soothers he had collected from the streets. Another 'installation' was to paint the chewing gum trodden into the pavement of Middle Abbey Street in luminous pink and green.

That, too, pleasingly annoyed officials at City Hall.

His father, John Gerard, had been an iron worker in Ballyfermot and Dowling had trained with him, learning how to fashion metal.

He hung his bicycle creations on the railings like giant children's mobiles and sat sternly on his stoop, watching the reactions of passing Dubliners but rarely engaging with them.

For two decades he fought a rearguard action against Dublin City Council, which owned the building. He had come to their attention, he believed, in 1991 when Dublin was European City of Culture and he had hung his refashioned, recycled bicycles on the railings as his contribution to the event.

In the years that followed, he became a fixture on the street, his Georgian front door often open, but not always welcoming.

As someone who ventured in a few times, I can recall that wide, charming, mischievous smile at the thought of publicity - which he loved because he liked to think of his den as an oasis among the cathedrals of commerce growing up around him.

"Letting people in here and getting them out are two different things," he explained in one interview.

"You know, a lot of people say 'Can I come in and have a look?' It's like, 'Can I intrude on your space?' It's one thing if I invite somebody, it's another if they invite themselves."

In 2012 he finally came to an undisclosed settlement with the city council and vacated his falling-down home and studio, taking off for Letterkenny to find artistic inspiration.

He lived the remainder of his life in the Harold's Cross area of Dublin with his partner Ruth Hosty.

Dowling, born on April 10 1951 and who died on June 30 2019, is survived by his partner, sisters Roisin and Marian and his brother Tony.

At his funeral, the Rev Hugh Gormley opened his tribute to Dowling saying: "One man's junk is another man's treasure... over the years Dublin has thrown up so many characters and we can safely say Ger fitted into this genre."

The ceremony ended with the congregation standing and clapping to Bob Marley singing Don't Worry' bout a Thing.

Seven years after he said goodbye to 47 Middle Abbey Street, it remains locked and unkempt.

Bits of an orange and green design Dowling painted still decorate some of the brickwork.

The door is studded with roundels he placed there. But the windows are grime encrusted and the building carries an air of dereliction.

You wonder why the city council was in such a hurry to get him out.

A single purple petunia is attached to the brass knocker, someone's modest tribute to the Zorro of the Liffey.

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