Monday 19 August 2019

Mary Kenny: Women are woefully under-represented in Irish statuary


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Summer visitors exploring O'Connell Street, vaunted as Ireland's main boulevard, will observe that six eminent Irishmen are commemorated in statue form: Daniel O'Connell, William Smith O'Brien, Sir John Gray, James Larkin, Father Theobald Mathew and Charles Stewart Parnell. The only females are the allegorical figures of 'Hibernia' and 'Fidelity' atop the GPO, along with the Roman god Mercury.

I'm not a fanatic about "gender balance" in every endeavour. Sometimes you have to let the cards fall as they may, according to availability of candidates, merit and context. But there are justified feminist complaints that women are blatantly under-represented among the statuary of Dublin (and elsewhere in Ireland too).

Apart from representations of the Blessed Virgin linked to churches or the allegorical representations of 'Éire' or such fanciful themes as 'Anna Livia' (mockingly dubbed "The Floozie in the Jacuzzi", removed from O'Connell Street where it was a litter magnet), there are only four historical women in Dublin city sculptures: a statue and a bust of Constance Markievicz; statues of Catherine McAuley, Sisters of Mercy founder; of the pregnant Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar; and of Veronica Guerin. (This is according to Neal Doherty's excellent Complete Guide to the Statues and Sculptures of Dublin City.)

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The most photographed woman in bronze or stone is Molly Malone. But Molly features in no historical record: she is a legend, celebrated in song, and in Jeanne Rynhart's statue now on Suffolk Street.

Molly's boobs are a prominent feature of the work, perhaps lending credence to the other informal legend, that if she existed, she was probably what we now call a sex worker. Well, prostitutes are as entitled to be memorialised as anyone else, and perhaps Molly is a cheering counterpoint to the striking, necessary but mournful depictions of Famine victims, foregrounding unknown women - Delaney's at Stephen's Green, Gillespie's on the Custom House Quay. But surely Dublin needs more statues of real, historical women who deserve a monument in their memory?

So, who are the candidates? Suggestions should be sent to the municipal authorities for consideration, and we would all have our own favourites. Moreover, location is a relevant consideration. I'd like to see a representation of that great Dublin comedienne Maureen Potter, possibly outside of one of the theatres with which she was associated. And shouldn't there be a public statue of Augusta Gregory, who did so much to found the Abbey Theatre, and who supported Yeats so crucially?

Doherty's guide describes a fitting sculpture of the tenor John McCormack at Iveagh Gardens: but doesn't the Castlebar soprano Margaret Burke Sheridan (died 1958), feted all over Italy and so much of continental Europe, also merit honour? I would also favour, possibly, a bronze bust of the other Mayo songstress Delia Murphy, who privately helped wartime refugees escape from the Nazis while she was married to the Irish Ambassador to Rome during the 1940s (and was reprimanded for breaching official neutrality).

At Dublin Airport, I'd suggest a tribute to Lady Mary Heath, née Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, the dashing Limerick-born world flying ace - the first person to pilot a plane from the Cape of Africa to London. Also known for 'daredevil' aerobatics, notably in America, she was an aeronautical pioneer with a rich backstory.

Dr Kathleen Lynn, also from Mayo, deserves a statue for the work she did in medical care in Dublin during the 1916 Rising, and afterwards, when she devoted herself to the founding of a children's hospital, St Ultan's, as well as to promoting An Óige.

She has been described as an example of "maternal feminism". Dr Lynn's companion was Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, and feminist historians such as Mary McAuliffe at UCD now regard the duo as a pioneering gay couple.

Anna Parnell (died 1911), who led the campaign for the Ladies' Land League, should surely be commemorated. Her brother Charles and Michael Davitt both came to consider Anna and her sister Fanny as "hysterical" and "fools", but there's now more recognition of the energies they put into the cause of land justice.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington is another worthy pioneer of women in politics, even if her nephew, Conor Cruise O'Brien, did describe her as a "battleaxe". Battleaxes are sometimes required. Monuments outside the Oireachtas, please.

Sarah Purser, the artist, could feature somewhere near the National Gallery. Edel Quinn, the brave missionary, deserves honour. Peig Sayers' writings may have a duty from our school days, but she was an original writer, and her own life is characteristic of the hard times that so many Irish people lived through.

There are collective public tributes to women, such as the Louie Bennett and Helen Chenevix bench for these renowned trade unionists, and the Magdalene Seat for the women of the Magdalene laundries, both in St Stephen's Green. But the capital city surely requires more monuments of individual women who contributed to culture and history. There are plenty to choose from.

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