The removal of a statue of Maureen O’Hara from the town of Glengarriff, Co Cork (after a negative reaction to the depiction of the Hollywood star), prompts broader reflections about the absence of female figures in public places.
In this instance, the sculptor decided to remove the statue and refuse the commission following a backlash online. But the matter once again begs the question: Why are there so few pieces of sculpture depicting Irish women, 100 years after the foundation of the State?
There are countless statues of the Virgin Mary in grottos and churches countrywide, yet merely a handful of sculptures showing flesh and blood women who made a notable contribution to Irish life.
Of those statues that do portray women, many are imaginary or metaphorical figures. There is the buxom yet fictional Molly Malone, an allegorical Anna Livia (demoted from O’Connell Street to the Croppies Memorial Park to make way for the distinctly phallic Spire) and the winged Victory figures on the Daniel O’Connell monument.
But there are scant few portrayals of our female politicians, scientists, writers, campaigners and inventors.
There are multiple male statues – including Daniel O’Connell, Oscar Wilde, Wolf Tone, James Connolly, James Larkin, James Joyce, Phil Lynott, Patrick Kavanagh and Luke Kelly – but a sparse female selection, often in secondary locations or as ancillary to a male figure (the smaller figure of Constance Lloyd beside her husband Oscar in Merrion Square).
In Dublin, only seven of the 200-plus pieces of public sculpture are of women. Why, when pagan Irish art celebrated female power, fecundity and sexuality with the potent Sheela na Gig, did our society shift so dramatically to only representing women as virgins, myths and saints?
In Irish tradition, the land is portrayed as a woman, a woman who outlives men, tribes and peoples, but as Irish society became Christian and later predominantly Catholic, images of women were confined mostly to religious icons.
This practice probably mirrored the patriarchal nature of Irish society, a vague yet pervasive misogyny and the ethos of both the Catholic Church and the De Valera state, that Irish women’s natural place was in the home and not on a plinth.
While the obstacles placed in the way of women pursuing roles in public life were considerable (state and church disapproval, the marriage ban and the promotion of motherhood as the most desirable career), Ireland did produce accomplished women in many spheres, including medicine, politics, theatre, literature and the trade union movement.
Why weren’t they deemed appropriate subjects for commemoration? One of the few representations of Irish women on an Irish building is the relief of the Three Graces on the former College of Domestic Science on Cathal Brugha Street by Gabriel Hayes.
It shows women devoted to home-making skills: the implicit message being that Irish women were domestic and maternal, rather than bold or pioneering.
Ireland’s historical female sculptors, while not abundant, have been an accomplished group, including Gabriel Hayes, Jeanne Rynhart, Sybil Le Brocquy and Imogen Stuart.
That they weren’t commissioned to produce more female subjects is a missed opportunity.
A shortlist of Irish women who deserve commemoration includes suffragette and Irish nationalist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington; Sinn Féin politician, activist and medic Dr Kathleen Lynn; Dublin’s first female Lord Mayor, Kathleen Clarke; explorer Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed; designers Sybil Connolly and Eileen Gray; fashion editor Carmel Snow; the Dunnes Stores strikers; sportswomen Katie Taylor, Lena Rice and Rachael Blackmore; and novelists Edna O’Brien, Maeve Brennan and Molly Keane.
This list could be extended without effort, as Ireland has produced many exceptional women.
Now, in the centenary of the Irish State, an initiative to redress the absence of Irish women in the nation’s public sculpture collection is long overdue. We need to restore the visibility of notable Irish women so that younger women will have role models to emulate and celebrate.
A display of female achievers and innovators would raise the sense of self-confidence among all Irish women, celebrate their contribution to the nation and redress the manner in which women were written out of Irish history for so long, as typified by the airbrushing of nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell from the 1916 surrender photo.
Irish women are not a footnote to the Irish State, they are an integral part of its story and we need to give them the respect they are due.