Ballymun gets a new local hero

Fri, Sep 10, 2010, 01:00

IF THERE was an award for the most democratic piece of public art in Ireland, a magnificent new sculpture due to be unveiled next week in Ballymun, Dublin would gallop away with it.

The sculpture, by artist John Byrne, references classical equestrian art but toys with tradition by placing the figure of a teenage girl from Ballymun – resplendent in bronze tracksuit and velcro-fastened runners – as the bareback rider on the horse.

Misneach, “courage” in Irish, is a stunning piece of work to rival that other classic Ballymun equine pop culture moment from The Commitments, where a horse is seen being led into a lift because “the stairs would kill him”.

Byrne was commissioned by Breaking Ground, the Per Cent for Art scheme that accompanied Ballymun’s redevelopment, to create a piece of public art for the area’s town centre. In a YouTube video of the making of MisneachBelfast-born Byrne explains he was interested in subverting the military sculptures found in squares and towns across Europe, which invariably feature military men astride horses.

“These things are commonplace in European towns and cities – nearly always men military men the great and the good as it were, but of course one person’s hero is another’s tyrant,” Byrne says.

He also wanted to celebrate the tradition of young people riding horses bareback around Dublin.

The artist, who made Dublin’s Last Suppermural for the city’s Italian Quarter, was aware of John Henry Foley’s bronze horse used in the Gough Memorial in the Phoenix Park, near where he lives in Cabra. The work by Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor was blown up in 1957 and sold by the Office of Public Works to a member of the Guinness family who gifted it to an ancestor of Gough’s, Sir Humphrey Wakefield. Byrne discovered that Wakefield restored the monument and resurrected it in the grounds of his home at Chillingham Castle, Northumberland. “I thought he would tell me to take a jump but he was delighted when I asked if I could copy his horse,” says Byrne.

From the beginning, a young local woman was always going to feature on the horse to assert the idea that people from all walks of life can be as heroic as the most celebrated, mostly male, mostly older public figures.

Back in 2007 open auditions were held in Ballymun to find a teenager between 13 and 18 who had a genuine love of horses. Eventually, 20 teenagers were photographed on horseback and the then 17-year-old Toni Marie Shields was chosen. She was scanned using state-of-the-art 3D software to make a mould for the work. Her mould and the mould from the model of the Gough horse were then combined to make the bronze sculpture.

A soft green patina applied at the end of the process gives the work an antiquated feel and the effect is of a sculpture straight out of the 18th century. “Ah, it’s lovely but it’s huge,” was Toni-Marie’s response when she first saw herself in bronze, one-and-half times life size.

The work, which is awaiting its inevitable nickname, will be placed on a hand-carved stone plinth just inside the gates of Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun and resited on Main Street when the Metro rail project is completed.