Michael Moynihan: Cork Sculpture Walk a win-win for citizens and artists alike

There’s no shortage of public spaces in the city which sculptors could enliven with their work  and no lack of artists who’d relish the chance to showcase their work  
Michael Moynihan: Cork Sculpture Walk a win-win for citizens and artists alike
The statue of Fr Mathew on Patrick  St, Cork, the city's most famous statue, it is literally known as The Statue. Picture Denis Minihane

A few weeks ago I picked up Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows, a book which details the two authors’ adventures flying their small plane around America. 

On their journeys they visit various small towns — hence the title— to learn just how those towns cope with the various social and economic challenges of 21st-century life.

On one trip they visited Sioux Falls in South Dakota and discovered among its attractions the Sculpture Walk.

According to its own website, this “is an exciting exhibit of outdoor sculptures displayed year-round in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota. 

Artists place their sculptures in the program for one year, and all sculptures are aggressively promoted to the public for sale. 

Artists are eligible to win any one or more of the 14 awards in the Best of Show, People's Choice voting and the random drawings. Awards total to $15,000.” 

I think you can see precisely where I’m going with this, and it has precisely nothing to do with flying a small plane around America.

At a time when the arts, like many other sectors, are under severe pressure as a result of the lockdown and virus, this kind of initiative sounds pretty attractive: beautifying the city and also offering the possibility of sales to artists, cash money. 

It’s no coincidence, surely, that the authors found that Sioux Falls was rated highly by people and companies looking for a new place to live.

I was particularly impressed with Sioux Falls’ commitment to “aggressively promote” the sculptures for sale to the public, even if it sparked a mental image of pedestrians being browbeaten into buying nine-feet chunks of marble when they’d only come into town for something small in Tiger and a coffee in Idaho.

There’s a lesson in that, however — we’re so used to the genteel approach with the arts here that it catches your eye when you see the cards being laid on the table: every promotion should be an aggressive one when the area being promoted is under pressure.

Of course, I decided to take a Sculpture Walk around Cork to see just how informative this city’s sculptures and statues are —not just about themselves, but the city itself.

(When I say ‘themselves’, there is of course a distinction to be made: a statue is generally a lifelike representation of a person or animal, whereas a sculpture doesn’t have to be lifelike.) 

Take the most famous statue in the city, so famous that it’s known as The Statue, the kind of fame any sculptor would be proud of.

Fr Mathew stands at the top of Patrick Street, whence generations of the city’s buses left to points north, south, east and west. 

The fact that The Statue was a key location on the map of the city’s public transportation system in some odd way seems fitting for an advocate of temperance, even if it’s not clear how big a problem drunken (carriage) driving was back in the 19th century, Fr Mathew’s heyday.

Is there any significance to the fact that the statue has its back to the city’s main drag? 

Famously there is only one pub which has its front entrance on Patrick Street (answers on a postcard — or, if this newspaper was still produced in its old haunt, answers on anything shoved through the letterbox of that same pub.) 

Is that relatively surprising lack of pubs down to the lingering effects of Fr Mathew’s work? You go to any other town or city in the country and the main street is well-populated with watering holes. Not Cork.

Does the relative sobriety of the main street bear witness to his efforts, and is his steady gaze on the northside of the city an indication of his plans for the next phase of operations? If so, vintners on Bridge Street would want to watch out.

I referred to the direction Fr Mathew is facing deliberately, by the way. There’s a sly symbolism sometimes in public statuary and people aren’t shy about inferring certain attitudes and beliefs from their orientation.

I can recall a native of Barcelona one time telling me that the statue of Columbus near the seafront in that city features the explorer pointing emphatically in a certain direction —but the joke was in his finger’s aim, somewhere in the direction of north Africa rather than the direction of his great discovery.

Why? Private joke or political commentary? Or both?

Incidentally, Fr Mathew came from Tipperary. He’s far from the only non-native to be commemorated with a statue on Leeside, but at least he’s survived, unlike the statue that once stood at the opposite end of the city to Fr Mathew.

If you walk from The Statue down the length of Patrick’s Street and follow the curve around the Grand Parade, you'll eventually reach the National Monument, but its predecessor had a different political outlook.

The statue which gave the street its Irish name, Sráid an Chapaill Bhuí (the street of the yellow horse), stood there, very near the river: it depicted King George II on horseback, was painted yellow in the 1780s and was knocked over in the 1860s. 

The general area occupied by that statue is now occupied by the National Monument.

Incidentally, an old photograph of the statue shows his mount with a hoof in the air (or is it two?) 

This reminds me of the long-held belief that you can trace the circumstances of the passing of the mounted hero on a statue through the positioning of the hooves.

PABest
            A Surge of Power (Jen Reid), by prominent British sculptor Marc Quinn, which has been installed in Bristol on the site of the fallen statue of the slave trader Edward Colston. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
PABest A Surge of Power (Jen Reid), by prominent British sculptor Marc Quinn, which has been installed in Bristol on the site of the fallen statue of the slave trader Edward Colston. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

All four on the plinth: the person died peacefully. One hoof in the air indicates someone wounded in battle, while two hooves off the plinth/ground commemorates someone who died in battle. A great symbolic code, apart from the simple fact that if you see any statues conforming to those facts then it’s a complete coincidence.

(King George II himself disproves the code: he died very early one morning after a cup of hot chocolate when he collapsed on his close stool, which is exactly what you think it is.) 

Symbolism aside, though, the case of the yellow horse being pulled down points to one significant issue when it comes to statuary at present — the fact that they’re out of favour.

The Black Lives Matter movement has cast a new light on individuals like Edward Colston in Bristol, whose background in the slave trade led to protesters toppling his statue, a far more understandable reaction than the ongoing vogue for vandalising the statue of Luke Kelly in Dublin.

A statue of the late musician Luke Kelly in Dublin's city centre is cleaned after it was defaced.  Picture: Brian Lawless
A statue of the late musician Luke Kelly in Dublin's city centre is cleaned after it was defaced.  Picture: Brian Lawless

Should we forget about a Sculpture Walk in Cork, then? As noted earlier, it’s a narrow view of public art to limit to the representational.

If you head along the South Mall from the National Monument you’ll find interesting pieces such as City by Pat O’Sullivan, with plenty of room for more beside it.

Which is where we came in. There’s no shortage of public spaces in the city which sculptors could enliven with their work — and no lack of artists, surely, who’d relish the chance to showcase their work for sale.

The Sculpture Walk. It’s a winner.

More in this section