Statues of Cork: Local heroes and a royal rumpus

Not only does the representation of Fr Matthew have a line in classic Cork song 'The Boys of Fairhill', it occupies a prominent place in the city's main thoroughfare, and is easily the best-known statue in the city.
Statues of Cork: Local heroes and a royal rumpus
The statue of Fr. Mathew with a mask at St. Patrick's Street, Cork. Picture Denis Minihane

Fr Mathew, Patrick's Street

“The smell on Patrick's Bridge is wicked, how does Fr Matthew stick it?”

Not only does the representation of Fr Matthew have a line in classic Cork song 'The Boys of Fairhill', it occupies a prominent place in the city's main thoroughfare, and is easily the best-known statue in the city. For tram passengers of an earlier age, and some bus passengers nowadays, the Patrick's Street stop is referred to as simply 'The Statue'. Theobald Mathew himself was a Tipperary-born priest who spent many years in Cork, from where he began his internationally-renowned Total Abstinence Society in 1838, which encouraged people to take the 'pledge' to avoid alcohol.

Created in bronze by John Henry Foley , who also did the Prince Albert for the Albert Memorial in London, the unveiling of the statue in October 1841 drew an estimated 100,000 people to the city. “Not one cross word was heard to be spoken,” amongst the crowds, noted the Cork Examiner, with committals to the Bridewell for drunkenness down to only 22 people, about 30% less than on a normal night.

While unlikely to be thrown in the river any time soon, there was a frisson of social media anger recently when the tale was revived of the priest's dealings with Frederick Douglass. The escaped slave visited Cork in 1845 as part of the anti-slavery campaign, and Fr Mathew was a key part of the warm welcome he received on Leeside.

“I saw no one that seemed to be shocked or disturbed at my dark presence,” wrote Douglass of a visit in which he shared breakfast with Fr Matthew and found common ground on the evils of alcohol. However, the relationship soured a few years later when the priest was in America and refused to speak out against slavery, possibly for fear of weakening support for his temperance movement. Douglass was outraged, writing that he had hoped Fr Mathew “would not change his morality by changing his location … We are however grieved, humbled and mortified to know that HE too, has fallen.’

Two Working Men, County Hall

Two Working Men (Irish: Beirt Fhear Oibre) are a pair of statues made by the Irish sculptor Oisín Kelly. The piece took Kelly three years to create and was unveiled in front of the County Hall in Cork in 1969. As with other works of public art in Ireland, the statues took on a local colloquial name, and are still commonly known as 'Cha and Miah'". Photo Frank Brault.
Two Working Men (Irish: Beirt Fhear Oibre) are a pair of statues made by the Irish sculptor Oisín Kelly. The piece took Kelly three years to create and was unveiled in front of the County Hall in Cork in 1969. As with other works of public art in Ireland, the statues took on a local colloquial name, and are still commonly known as 'Cha and Miah'". Photo Frank Brault.

Don't say it loudly, but this sculpture is not, as popular lore would have it, of Cha and Miah. To add insult to injury, it wasn't even meant for Cork originally, and is a bit of a cast-off from Dublin. Oisin Kelly's figures became associated with the Hall's Pictorial Weekly characters in the 1970s, when the show was one of the most popular on Irish TV.

Two Working Men began life as a commission by the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in the late 1960s to sit outside its Liberty Hall headquarters in Dublin. Unfortunately, they were deemed a traffic hazard and never took their place outside what was then Ireland's tallest building. The work by Oisin Kelly – also the creator of the representation of the Children of Lir at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance - was instead shipped to Cork for a sculpture exhibition in Fitzerald's Park. The two upward-gazing figures are thought to be representative of the ordinary working man (no working women back then!), possibly looking up at the work they've achieved in their day's labour.

When it was time for the Two Working Men to be shipped back to Dublin, the local branch of the union got involved and the sculpture was retained for the County Hall, which by now had surpassed Liberty Hall as Ireland's tallest building.

An impressive piece that is still fondly-regarded by Corkonians, it nevertheless did end up in the river in 2009, when massive floods from the nearby Lee surrounded the County Hall.

First World War memorial, South Mall

Thousands turn out for the unveiling of the War Memorial in Cork on the South Mall on March 17, 1925.
Thousands turn out for the unveiling of the War Memorial in Cork on the South Mall on March 17, 1925.

Even with the deaths of more than 2,200 Cork people in the Great War, and thousands more injured or traumatised, the creation of a monument so soon after independence was never going to be without controversy. It was erected on St Patrick's Day in 1925 by the Cork Independent Ex-Servicemen, a group founded earlier in the decade when local war veterans objected to their organisation merging with the British Legion. Despite the nationalist leanings of the Cork splitters, republican councillors objected to the granting of permission for the monument.

Fundraising by the ex-servicemen included soccer matches, and a flag day in the city where people donated coins in return for forget-me-not blooms which they then wore.

Plans to unveil the statue on the previous Armistice Day had to be postponed when a storm caused flooding to the Ballinasloe quarry where the stone was sourced.

On the day itself, thousands lined the streets of Cork for a procession by six bands, including one from Greenmount Industrial School. Proceedings at the memorial itself were given an added poignancy by the presence of children wearing the war medals of their fallen fathers.

Speeches included mention of the fight for the freedom of small nations, but the main unveiling was done by General Harrison, former commander of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. The memorial was even draped in a Union Jack, and the Bandon-born officer concluded his remarks with: “God save the king, and God save Ireland.'

Wreath-laying at the memorial has continued up to the present day, and still causes occasional dissent in the City Council chamber and beyond.

Independence heroes, Fitzgerald's Park

Statue of Michael Collins, by Seamus Murphy, is unveiled at Fitzgerald's Park, Cork, by The Chief Justice Cearbhall O'Dalaigh in 1966
Statue of Michael Collins, by Seamus Murphy, is unveiled at Fitzgerald's Park, Cork, by The Chief Justice Cearbhall O'Dalaigh in 1966

You're never that far from a work by Seamus Murphy in Cork city, and the renowned sculptor is the man behind the busts of three of the War of Independence figures that sit in Fitzgerald's Park. The first of these was Michael Collins, the slain Corkman an early presence in the park in the 1966, thanks to Prof Aloys Fleischmann and the local Sculpture Park committee.

It was unveiled by Chief Justice Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (later President), who described the piece as a “stimulant to the imagination”.

In 2008, a bronze bust of Tom Barry was cast from Murphy's earlier sculpture of the Kerry-born former British soldier who caused so much bother for elements of his former army with his guerrilla tactics in West Cork.

And in 2016, the trio was completed with the unveiling of the bust of Éamon de Valera, a figure who would have been a close comrade and later sworn enemy of the other two. That piece was donated by former politician Máirín Quill, who had earlier acquired it from Murphy's family.

Other notable busts from the WOI era also include the City Hall duo of lord mayors Tomás MacCurtain (shot by British forces) and Terence MacSwiney (died on hunger strike in Brixton prison).

Rory Gallagher, Rory Gallagher Place

Mrs Monica Gallagher, Rory's mother; his brother Donal; former Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Dave McCarthy; former lady mayoress Mrs Frances McCarthy; Cllr Dan Boyle; Dan Wallace; Pat O'Mahony; and Marcus Connaughton. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Mrs Monica Gallagher, Rory's mother; his brother Donal; former Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Dave McCarthy; former lady mayoress Mrs Frances McCarthy; Cllr Dan Boyle; Dan Wallace; Pat O'Mahony; and Marcus Connaughton. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Two years after Rory Gallagher's death in 1995, the city renamed a square after the great guitarist, and unveiled a sculpture in his memory. The non-figurative piece was created by Geraldine Creedon - a sister of writer Conal Creedon and broadcaster John – also a childhood friend of the maestro who grew up in the MacCurtain Street area. Commissioned by Cork Corporation with a sum of £10,000, the bronze piece has Celtic motifs, intertwining a representation of a guitar, and lyrics from Gallagher's 1982 album Jinx.

It was unveiled in October 1997, in the presence of Rory's brother Donal and mother Monica, as the rest of the city somewhat fittingly city bopped to the sounds of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Sitting on a stone plinth marked with the word 'Tribute', it has become a place of pilgrimage for Gallagher fans visiting the city, and was a gathering sitee for events around the 20th anniversary of his death at the age of 47. Recent events to mark the 25th anniversary were curtailed by coronavirus restrictions. A statue of Gallagher was erected in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal – where he spent his infancy – in 2010.

George Boole, UCC

Dominick Chilcott, former ambassador of Ireland to Great Britain, Cllr Chris O'Leary, former Lord Mayor of Cork, and former UCC President Michael Murphy at the unveiling of the George Boole Statue in UCC yesterday. Photo: Emmet Curtin.
Dominick Chilcott, former ambassador of Ireland to Great Britain, Cllr Chris O'Leary, former Lord Mayor of Cork, and former UCC President Michael Murphy at the unveiling of the George Boole Statue in UCC yesterday. Photo: Emmet Curtin.

It has the makings of a fine pub-quiz question. Who is buried in Blackrock, has a crater on the moon named after him, and a statue in UCC erected in his honour? Memories of mathematical genius George Boole were revived a few years ago for the bicentenary of his birth in 1815, and this bust by Paul Ferriter was unveiled in 2016.

Born in Lincolnshire, Boole became the first professor of mathematics at what was then Queen's College, Cork, and though never fully appreciated during his lifetime, his work in what is now termed 'Boolean algebra' would later be crucial in the development of electrical circuits, computing and other areas.

Jack Lynch, Blackpool Shopping Centre

As a Cork man prepares himself to be anointed to the highest office in the land, it's fitting to remember the last Leesider to hold the office of Taoiseach. James McCarthy's bronze sculpture has Lynch sitting on a bench reading the Cork Examiner, and is located in the shopping centre a few hundred yards from where he hurled with the Glen. Of course, donning that club's colours and leading Fianna Fáil could be polarising factors in Cork, but his prowess in the Rebel county's All-Ireland campaigns ensured he is generally fondly remembered. Start the speculation now on whether Micheál Martin will be immortalised in Douglas Shopping Centre in years to come.

The ones that got away

Queen Victoria, UCC: After occupying an exalted spot in the college for many years, a statue of the 'Famine Queen' was taken down and buried in the grounds in the 1930s. Debate raged around her disinterment in 1995, but the yes side won, and the statue even got to meet Victoria's grand-daughter Elizabeth II on her visit to Cork in 2011. Bristol artist Banksy has suggested the statue of a slaver that was recently toppled by demonstrators in his home city could become part of an art installation to show the various sides of the controversy. Could Queen Vic be put to similar good use in Cork?

Padre Pio, Regional Hospital: Plans to erect a representation of Padre Pio on the grounds of the 'Wilton Hilton' were scuppered in 1987 by the intervention of Pat Maloney, a printer with this newspaper. The Cork-based Donegal man argued successfully that a state-owned hospital should not feature a statue of a Catholic saint.

George II: An impressive statue of English king George II atop a horse by John Van Nost the younger sat by present-day Tuckey's Street until the covering of water channels saw it moved to the junction of the South Mall and Grand Parade. Memories of its yellow colour survive in the Irish name for the Grand Parade - 'Sráid an Chapaill Bhuí'. It was already in poor condition by the time an unknown assailant knocked George over in 1862, and the corporation soon removed it altogether.

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