Maeve Higgins: Portraits of courage in Ireland and America

Richmond, Virginia and Dublin in Ireland: How two sculptures, thousands of miles apart, unite to reimagine something terrible into a thing of great beauty and power
Maeve Higgins: Portraits of courage in Ireland and America

Kehinde Wiley's 'Rumors of War' was initially unveiled in Times Square, New York City, before being moved to its permanent home in Richmond, Virginia. Picture: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This is a story about two statues. When I hear the word ‘misneach’, I can only picture a horse thrusting forward to battle, a teenage girl facing into the unknown with her gaze steady, an entire community betting on itself to smash old constructs and start over, stronger.

This image comes to me because that’s what I saw the day I learned that word. Misneach is the title of the sculpture I just described, a teenage girl in a tracksuit and runners riding a magnificently muscled horse, by the artist John Byrne.

It stands 6m (20ft) high on a concrete plinth outside Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun, Dublin.

This is an exclusive extract from Maeve Higgins’ new book, ‘ Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them’, published now by Penguin/Random House

When I hear misneach, it sends me hurtling back through time to 1916 and 1957 and 1921, and it sends me shooting across the world to India and Kenya and the US.

Misneach came to mind as I stood in Richmond, Virginia, in the pouring rain, gazing up at the second statue in this story — of another teenager on another horse. As the rain tapped a rhythm of change on my umbrella, I took in Rumors of War by the artist Kehinde Wiley, standing as it does on a huge stone pedestal.

The horse is in its prime and in full flight, and there’s a black teenager with short dreadlocks and Nikes and a tracksuit on, holding the reins with one hand, facing off to the side, looking alert and sure and strong.

John Byrne's equestrian sculpture 'Misneach', its rider modelled on local girl Toni Marie Shields, stands proudly outside Trinity Comprehensive School, Ballymun. File picture: Spleodrach/Creative Commons
John Byrne's equestrian sculpture 'Misneach', its rider modelled on local girl Toni Marie Shields, stands proudly outside Trinity Comprehensive School, Ballymun. File picture: Spleodrach/Creative Commons

Rumors of War, unveiled outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in December 2019, was inspired by the statue of Confederate army general J E B (James Ewell Brown) Stuart, which stood on the city’s 'Monument Avenue' since 1907 and was finally removed last year.

At the unveiling of Rumors of War, Wiley said: “In these toxic times art can help us transform and give us a sense of purpose": 

This story begins with my seeing the Confederate monuments. What does it feel like if you are black and walking beneath this? We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let’s take these fractured pieces and put them back together.

As well as the similar image of a teenager on horseback I saw in Misneach, it was this instinct and this intention that connected both monuments; the artists’ decision to reimagine something terrible into something beautiful.

Putting the fractured pieces of history back together is exactly what Misneach does. Byrne had been inspired by another statue, one that had been blown to pieces by the IRA in 1957.

At that time, the IRA was quite active in destroying monuments and a frequent target was the statue of Field Marshal Gough, a British army officer who fought in 19th-century colonial wars in Europe and China before eventually serving as commander-in-chief in India.

Gough was born in Ireland and his military career ended with the highest possible rank in the British army. The brass statue of Gough was erected on a towering plinth in the centre of Dublin’s Phoenix Park in 1880.

The metal that made Gough’s statue was collected from five tons of “enemy cannon” in India and China, the material of a violent struggle by the people he was colonising on behalf of the British army. Then, a century after that, it was blown up by a different group of anti-imperialists, this time in Ireland.

When I learned that — I’m sorry to tell you this but there is no other adequate way for me to explain the extent of my awe — my mind, like the statue of the brutal old soldier, was blown to pieces.

How could it be a mere coincidence that the very metal dug out of the ground — the minerals so craved by the rapidly-industrialising Britain in the 19th century that the nation would maim and kill entire populations for access to them — could be used as a weapon against the colonisers but fail to stop their terrible work? 

Then for that metal to be brought by those same conquering savages across the ocean to another land they had presumed to take hold of, and moulded into a triumphalist public statement over an already cowed people, seems a bit far-fetched.

Hungry for freedom

Next, in a twist nobody could have seen coming, except for those who know every empire must fall, that statement, in the form of a statue, was destroyed by people hungry for as complete a freedom as they could imagine.

The metal lived on, just changed shape, eventually being reconstructed back into the statue again, which would then serve as a mould for Misneach.

In Ireland, the question of what to do with monuments to former oppressors was just one of many gigantic conundrums facing the new Irish Free State upon its birth in 1921. In the cities, the landscape was punctuated by these towering statues and monuments.

In the decades following independence, the monuments erected by the British throughout Irish public spaces were removed by both the new Irish government and, as in Gough’s case, a host of less official ways involving gelignite and other explosives.

Monuments have always been a handy target for direct action. In Ireland, one of the most prominent was Nelson's Pillar in  O'Connell Street, Dublin, which was blown up by republicans and finally demolished by the Irish Army in 1966. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images
Monuments have always been a handy target for direct action. In Ireland, one of the most prominent was Nelson's Pillar in  O'Connell Street, Dublin, which was blown up by republicans and finally demolished by the Irish Army in 1966. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images

Monuments have long been handy targets for direct action. The most famous target in Ireland was probably Nelson’s Pillar, a statue of Admiral Nelson standing over 130ft tall on a pillar slap bang in the middle of Dublin. It was placed there in 1809, less than a decade after yet another failed rebellion in the city — a mark and a warning to the population.

Nelson had never even visited Ireland; his monument was not a commemoration. It was a political act, as all public monuments are, a towering reminder to the Irish of who was in charge. The pillar was blown up in 1966, by whom it was never officially known, and its destruction didn’t harm anyone and was widely celebrated.

A song about it by The Dubliners shot to the top of the charts. It makes me laugh listening to it today, especially the live recordings where everyone is singing along, their voices gleeful as they tell of Nelson’s ascent into the atmosphere to become Ireland’s own contribution to the global space race. 

It must have been so much fun to watch the Irish army blow up the jagged remains of the pillar, as 5,000 people reportedly did, and then rush in to get a small lump of the Wicklow granite and tuck it into your cardigan pocket before you headed to the pub for pints with your friends, just smoking cigarettes and eating toasted cheese and onion sandwiches in a snug, talking about socialism with other curly-haired youngsters.

The IRA put enormous effort into destroying various symbols of British imperialism through the years and it’s generally accepted they are the ones who got Gough. In fact, they got him repeatedly.

On Christmas Eve in 1944, somebody even managed to saw the head off. The statue stood decapitated for months until the head showed up in the River Liffey, peeping out of the mudflats at low tide.

Gough’s head was soldered back on and he remained largely intact until the 1957 explosive attack broke him into pieces. The remains of the plinth and the statue were quietly withdrawn from public view and put into storage, where they stayed until the late 1980s when a member of the Guinness family bought him from the Irish government with strict instructions to remove him from the country.

Humphry Wakefield, a descendant of Gough’s, eventually claimed him, had him restored and settled him at his home in the north of England, Chillingham Castle. It was there that Misneach’s sculptor found him and was able to make a mould — not of Gough, just of the horse.

'Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them' by Maeve Higgins is out now, published by Penguin/Random House
'Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them' by Maeve Higgins is out now, published by Penguin/Random House

Misneach was commissioned as part of an art programme for the Ballymun regeneration: a remaking of an entire neighbourhood, via a public and private partnership that cost hundreds of millions of euro and took more than a decade to complete. 

The renovation was almost completed when in 2008 the recession meant that once again Dublin ran out of money before it could place the statue in the centre of Ballymun’s business district as planned, because the business district wasn’t completed.

So they had to put the statue, one-and-a-half times larger than life, somewhere else. The young woman who modelled for the girl on the horse, Toni Marie Shields, went to Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun and it must have seemed fitting for the kids there to see themselves. 

That is the story of how Misneach came to stand outside the school looking just like courage, looking just like the kids inside.

That is what brought me to Richmond, where I walked the mile or so from Rumors of War to the Robert E Lee monument, past the pedestals that until recently held Confederate monuments. 

The empty plinths made for a strange energy in the landscape of the city — it felt like the silence when you accidentally walk into another family’s argument. And that is what the empty plinths represent, two sides in disagreement about what the past meant, not ready yet to give over to the future. Far from an intellectual exercise, the question of what to do with monuments and statues is as real as it gets.

A process as brutal and racist as chattel slavery has never been seen before or since; it’s not comparable to colonisation, nor is a straight comparison between Lee and Gough possible.

The resonance I feel between Ireland and the US is that of two places struggling to hold their history and their present together in a way that stops them from ripping completely apart.

Living in the US, I’ve listened with rapt attention to the arguments for what to do with Confederate statues and the names of all manner of places, from army bases to streets and towns. Sometimes when I sense the roiling pain just under the surface here, I want to let Americans know they’re not the first to feel this. Other communities and other nations have also faced this reckoning and this pain.

There’s not really a Youtube video that explains in under three minutes how best to critically appraise the history of a place through how it has treated its monuments, but it is useful to see what other places have done. Ireland hasn’t fully figured it out even after 100 years of independence.

Life goes around in circles, but sometimes those circles spin so hard they transfer something new to the next round.

I want to hold America’s face when it lights up with a fever I’m afraid will set her whole self aflame and tell her that there’s not an easy answer except to fight and to win and to get free, in all the ways that a person can be free.

It’s possible, I think, to demand that from yourself and from others. It takes misneach to get there, and I see that in black Americans and those who fight with them, that particular kind of courage: A heart-based courage, a hopeful courage, a spirited courage.

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