Pairs of sculptures now Dublin landmarks
An Irishman’s Diary: Two Farrell statues stand on O’Connell Street
‘Thomas Farrell has the unique distinction of having two of his works on O’Connell Street. His statue of Sir John Gray commemorates a prominent Dublin politician and social reformer, the owner/editor of the Freeman’s Journal. The other statue is of William Smith O’Brien, the Young Irelander and leader of the 1848 rebellion.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The name Thomas Farrell may not be widely known nowadays, but his sculptures can be seen in prominent Dublin locations. They are in pairs in several places, keeping each other company as it were: Archbishops Murray and Cullen are in the Pro-Cathedral, and Archbishop Whately and John McNeill Boyd are in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Lord Ardilaun sits in a relaxed pose in Stephen’s Green, and surgeon William Dease is directly across the Luas tracks, inside the College of Surgeons. The nearby University Church has his bust of Cardinal Newman, while the incomparable William Dargan is, appropriately, in splendid isolation outside the National Gallery.
Farrell has the unique distinction of having two of his works on O’Connell Street. His statue of Sir John Gray commemorates a prominent Dublin politician and social reformer, the owner/editor of the Freeman’s Journal. One of Gray’s greatest civic achievements was the Vartry water scheme, which improved living conditions in Dublin and brought about a dramatic fall in death rates for the city. It was primarily for this reason that he was knighted and then honoured with a statue by Thomas Farrell, which was unveiled in 1879.
The other Farrell statue on O’Connell Street is of William Smith O’Brien, the Young Irelander and leader of the 1848 rebellion, who was exiled to Van Diemen’s Land. Later pardoned, he returned to Ireland and played the role of nationalist elder statesman, espousing constitutional methods and passive resistance rather than physical force. He travelled widely and published many books. The statue, unveiled in December 1870, was highly controversial, because it honoured a nationalist rebel who had been condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered only 20 years earlier. A firebrand speech at the unveiling stoked the fires of controversy. The statue was sited at the south side of O’Connell Bridge until 1929, when it was moved to its present position, in order to facilitate traffic flow near the bridge.
There might well have been a third Farrell monument on O’Connell Street. When proposals for a memorial to Daniel O’Connell were invited, he and his three brothers each submitted a design, and Thomas was the favoured candidate in the press. Ultimately however, the commission was awarded to John Henry Foley, who was Irish but living in London, something that sparked resentment among people who argued that an Irish sculptor resident in Ireland should have been given the honour.
Farrell spent his final years in Kilmacud, living from 1895 in Redesdale House, which had previously been the residence of one of his subjects, Archbishop Richard Whately. Thomas Farrell was a most self-effacing man, and his shyness meant that he rarely attended unveilings or other public events. In fact, he was reported as running away from one unveiling ceremony, apparently suffering a crisis of confidence. Nevertheless, he was very highly regarded and was honoured by his peers in being elected president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1893. He was the first sculptor to become president of the RHA. Another honour followed when he was knighted in May, 1894. However, his income was always modest and he won fewer commissions as he grew older.
Thomas Farrell never married and died in Redesdale on July 2nd, 1900, at the age of 73. His passing went unmarked in the press for some days. This was not because he was forgotten but because it was his wish that his death would not be made public until three days after it happened, to avoid any public displays. He was buried quietly in Glasnevin, where many of his memorials stand over other graves. His surviving brothers, Joseph and William, and one sister, Elizabeth, lived in Redesdale together, all unmarried. A year after his death, a fund was established to support them. Its chairman, Lord Powerscourt, stated that Thomas had died almost in destitution and that his sister and brothers were in desperate circumstances. There was great goodwill towards the family and many contributions to the fund.
An obituary in The Irish Times said that there was no Irish sculptor who could fill Thomas Farrell’s shoes; he was described as essentially a retiring man, diffident to an extraordinary degree, who never seemed satisfied with his finished work: “His memory will remain green amongst Irishmen so long as his masterpieces stand in our midst, and his achievements will ever remain in conjunction with those of Foley and Hogan, Barry and Maclise, as a magnificent demonstration of the artistic instinct and capacity of Irishmen.”