The sunfish that popped up in my toilet, and other EndangeredDave creations

An Irish artist and activist uses free paintings and social media to focus attention on the need to protect endangered species

Sat, Jun 28, 2014, 01:00

Few creatures in Irish waters are stranger to human eyes than the sunfish. It seems to be all head and no body, can be almost square, and grows as long (and wide) as three metres. It also likes to lie on the surface of the ocean. One theory says it does this to warm up after deep dives. Another says it is inviting seabirds to eat its parasites. It used to be considered very rare in Ireland, and it is protected in EU waters. It is now seen off our coasts with increasing frequency, however, a possible indication of climate change.

Be that as it may, I never expected to find a sunfish in the toilet of Third Space, my local cafe in Smithfield, Dublin. But there it was, perched on the cistern, with a little label attached that reads “Please take me, and please read the back”.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at EndangeredDave’s Facebook page, where the Smithfield sunfish appears in its curious context, along with a menagerie of images of other threatened animals in unlikely situations. All of them are painted in acrylics, on board or canvas, and all of them are hung or standing in public places, mostly outdoors. All of them, too, are gifts to the finder, who is requested to post a photograph of the relocated painting to the page, where they will find more information about the animal.

This conservation-awareness campaign, conducted by David Byrne, a talented amateur artist, must be one of the most original of such schemes anywhere. He has been at it for only a few months, but it is already taking on an international dimension: he gets requests to send his paintings to other European cities so that people can hang them in “street galleries” that promote similar messages.

Byrne trained in art and design at Galway-Mayo IT and then in community arts at the National College of Art and Design, but he says his real vocation is social activism and advocacy, in which he holds a master’s degree. He works with the homeless at Focus Ireland in Dublin and at a shelter in Galway.

He began painting animals when he took a break between studies to teach English in Korea. And he works fast: he had produced the sunfish, a humpback whale, an otter and a leatherback turtle the night before we met at Third Space.

When he came back from Korea Byrne was shocked by the boom’s impact on his native town, Ashbourne, in Co Meath. Nine hundred people lived there when he was born. Thirty-three years later it has soared to 10,000, as a new Dublin dormitory.

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