The law is a little black ass

An Irishman’s Diary about Pádraic Ó Conaire and Galway City Museum

‘Head and shoulders deftly reunited, Ó Conaire now reposes in the safe surrounds of Galway City Museum, free from the depredations of the inebriated.’

‘Head and shoulders deftly reunited, Ó Conaire now reposes in the safe surrounds of Galway City Museum, free from the depredations of the inebriated.’


The trial judge compared the crime with someone stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. But in fact, it had at least two key differences from such a scenario.

For one thing the victim, Pádraic Ó Conaire’s stone effigy, enjoyed none of the Mona Lisa’s security during the 60 years it sat, minding its own business, on Galway’s Eyre Square. And besides, it wasn’t merely theft the monument suffered on the infamous night, it was assault and battery as well.

During the course of a drunken spree in 1999, four young eejits from Armagh thought it would be amusing to knock the head off the sculpture. So Ó Conaire was duly decapitated with a kick. Only as an afterthought, apparently, did the eejits decide to take the head home.

It was in the process of being extradited to Northern Ireland, when gardaí intercepted a bus leaving Galway the next day and arrested the culprits with their loot. I imagine that, by then, they had a head on them in more ways than one.

They were subsequently fined £1,000, and a further £2,000 compensation, each. But another upshot of their stupid prank was that, these days, the sculpture enjoys something nearer the Mona Lisa’s security levels. Head and shoulders deftly reunited, Ó Conaire now reposes in the safe surrounds of Galway City Museum, free from the depredations of the inebriated.

In its new location, the monument provides a dramatic centre-piece for an exhibit on the writer’s life. As the accompanying text reminds us, the original, flesh-and-blood Ó Conaire was born on February 28th, 1882, a fateful month for Irish literature. Twenty-six days earlier, on the opposite side of the island, James Joyce had emerged into the light of day.

And the two were to have at least one other thing in common: early exile. Orphaned at 11, Ó Conaire was raised for a time by an uncle in Connemara, but went to London in his late teenage years for a job in the civil service. While there, he married and started both a family and a literary career.

Less happily, he also started drinking, a habit that blighted his life. Moving home without the family in 1914, he became politically involved in the emerging Ireland (the statue incident was not his only run-in with northerners – he was arrested in Belfast during 1916 for alleged spying). But his later years were marked by disillusionment, alcoholism, and poverty. He died in 1928, aged 46, alone and penniless, in Dublin’s Richmond Hospital.

As with many writers, his country’s affections were bestowed posthumously. Taoiseach Eamon De Valera unveiled Albert Power’s sculpture of Ó Conaire in 1935. But it took another half century, almost, before a marker was erected at his grave in Galway’s Bohermore Cemetery.

Getting back Galway City Museum, meanwhile, it provides a safe harbour this week not just for Ó Conaire or for the full-scale replica of a Galway Hooker that hangs dramatically over the atrium nearby.

It’s also a haven for anyone fleeing the madness of the racing festival, which climaxes nightly in and outside the bars of nearby Quay Street. Indeed, it’s probably the only place in the city where you can be completely immune from tips for horses that, in the event, turn out to be about as athletic as Ó Conaire’s famous creation: M’Asal Beag Dubh.

Writers and hookers aside, the museum’s more entertaining exhibits include the old city by-laws, from an era when it was an English enclave surrounded by “ferocious O’Flahertys” and other native undesirables. In a typical example from 1522, a stiff fine is threatened against man who doesn’t speak English or “shave his upper lipe weekly”.

And at a time when Galway is also hosting a giant poker tournament for anyone who hasn’t already lost enough money at Ballybrit, it’s almost edifying to see a 1528 edict forbidding cards, dice, or other gambling games played “by younge men”, especially “prentisys” and “Irishmen”. Anyone caught in the act could consider their money forfeit, while the host premises faced a fine of 20 shillings.

But in medieval Galway, as the museum also reminds us, fines were for minor misdemeanours. Those drunken pranksters of Armagh were perhaps lucky to live in a later age than the one occupied by a former mayor of Galway, circa 1493. I refer of course to James Lynch, said to have condemned his own son to the ultimate punishment, albeit for murder, and so doing to have given his name to the English language.

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