Coffee, food and a hidden gem of Irish art
Judo Players, a wonderful piece full of energy and movement, was rejected by several of the North’s local authorities. It was finally bought by Derry City Council and was displayed for a time until someone stole a hand, after which it was put into storage. Earlier this year, it was spotted by a member of the public in a council yard beside the city dump. The council has since said it plans to restore the sculpture and give it a new home. It will soon go on display in the Banbridge gallery.
Derry has one of McWilliam’s most magnificent and important works, the statue of Princess Macha, outside the Altnagelvin Hospital. McWilliam was commissioned by the hospital’s architects Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall. The dove on Macha’s outstretched arm recalls St Colmcille but also Picasso. When it was put up in 1961, Macha’s modernism caused an outcry, as did an accompanying mural by William Scott, but McWilliam calmly responded that people would “get used to it”. It is now much-loved.
“He had a good sense of humour,” says Diamond. “When he heard that Homer was to go to Belfast’s City Hospital, he called it ‘man with his arm in a sling’. When it snows, it really looks like that.” Homer is on loan to Banbridge.
McWilliam considered himself lucky to have grown up in a country town, with fields that were blue when the flax was in flower, white when the locally made linen was laid out to bleach – “magical intrusions in the normal patchwork of green”.
With mills, butchers and furniture makers, there was the “constant sight of craftsmanship”. However, he also witnessed the riots and house burnings of 1920, and wanted out. After studying art in Belfast, he headed for the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1928, intending to be a painter. There he met Henry Moore, who became a lifelong friend and influenced his decision to become a sculptor.
In 1931 he took off with his future wife, the artist Beth Crowther, for Paris, “holy ground, full of the memories of Cezanne, and the presence of Picasso”. Brancusi was a mentor, with his ideal of beauty as “absolute equity”. McWilliam was also drawn to surrealism, because it “made for freedom of thinking”. It appealed to his playfulness – his torso-less figures, one of them on display at Banbridge, recall Dalí. In Paris he also read Ulysses, appreciating how Joyce had built “complexity . . . on a simple framework”. He served in the RAF during the second World War, and spent time in India. That country’s sculptures would prove a significant influence.