Sculptor whose fiery attitude and solid creations won over the public, writes Eamon Delaney
'I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in or on the most beautiful building in the world.' So said the artist Henry Moore, and if the test of success is to have one's work in a public space and to have it seen by as many people as possible then Eamonn O'Doherty was very successful. His work is familiar to thousands of people who pass it every day, whether it be the rust-red Galway Hookers in Eyre Square, or James Connolly's statue by Liberty Hall, or most famously the Anna Livia fountain, the so called 'Floozie in the Jacuzzi', which was once on Dublin's O'Connell Street and has now been moved to an appropriate Liffey-side spot near Heuston Station. It was a restoration which thankfully O'Doherty, who had battled cancer and other illnesses, was able to see before he passed away suddenly last week aged 72, a restoration that was vividly recorded in a recent RTE documentary by broadcaster Joe Duffy about public art.
Despite these successes, O'Doherty was shunned by some of the more elitist in the art world who scorn populism and whose preference is for academic minimalism and issue-based fads. This was a bit hurtful but O'Doherty was secure in a strong reputation and had a thriving business, producing commissions not only in Ireland but throughout the world, especially in America, where his famine commemorations were much sought after.
As well as metal, O'Doherty worked in stone and other media, and had first trained as an architect, through UCD, a qualification that he found a great asset as a public sculptor, since public art is often treated as an afterthought by developers or planners -- rather than being an integral part of a planned public space from the beginning. O'Doherty knew how to protect himself and his creations in such struggles and shrugged off the inevitable philistine attitudes to much of his work, especially in Ireland which does not always have a strong respect of the visual aesthetic compared to, say, our reverence for literature and theatre. With his bald pate and signature goatee beard, the public appreciated O'Doherty's fiery attitude and eventually grew affectionate about his additions to the streetscape, even honouring them with nicknames such as 'The Golden Goolie', or The Tree of Gold, as it was properly named, on the Central Bank Plaza.
Originally, from Derry, O'Doherty was a gregarious, witty and even bawdy character at times, and was also a great help to other artists, especially young sculptors. His leafy home on Dublin 4's Marlborough Road was a convivial dropping-in centre for artists, writers and other free spirits, although the restless O'Doherty was often travelling the globe, completing commissions and giving talks. For years, he lectured at the faculty of architecture in the Dublin Institute of Technology, as well as at the University of Jordan, the University of Nebraska and the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture in Paris.
One of his finest pieces is a famine sculpture, a steel table placed outdoors, with a shallow cup to catch rainwater, and a bowl for random leaves or seeds. It instantly invoked the transitory nature of famine and survival -- the water and seeds fade way -- but it could also be a fitting monument to O'Doherty himself, the sculptor whose solid work, like his reputation, will endure. He is survived by his wife, Barbara O Brolchain, daughters Aisling, Meghan and Rosie, and son Eoin.