Do you want your old Molly washed down?

Dublin’s statue of Molly Malone is an ever-stoic victim of the impulse to spray-paint, tag and otherwise deface our surroundings

Dab hand: cleaning the graffiti off Molly Malone this week. Photograph: Eric Luke

Dab hand: cleaning the graffiti off Molly Malone this week. Photograph: Eric Luke


It had to be the cleavage. It’s always the cleavage. You can bet that when they first pulled the sheet from Molly Malone, and unveiled her to the world, nobody’s eyes fell on the wheelbarrow first.

Since then the Dublin statue’s bosom must have been painted every shade under the Dulux colour chart, although variations on the tricolour have always seemed a particularly popular choice of patriotic vandals. During Euro 2012 she was so painted that she was only short of holding a Davy Keogh Says Hello flag.

This week the cleavage was red. (A witty take on “scarleh for her”? Not a chance.) She had been only a week at her temporary home outside the Discover Ireland tourist office on Suffolk Street when she was defaced. That time span was considered brief enough for it to make the news. (It seemed more newsworthy that she survived that long without having paint scrawled on her.)

So Molly will be cleaned down again. Vandalised again. Cleaned. Vandalised. And on it will go. Because Molly Malone stands as an ever-stoic victim of the impulse some people feel to spray-paint spaces, deface public art, tag statues, look at a piece of street furniture and wonder in just what way they can wreck it.

Vandalism isn’t inevitable. An early success of the Dublinbikes scheme was that its bicycles didn’t end up in the Liffey. Dubliners had steeled themselves for that, presumed half of them would be missing and the other half banjaxed before the first month was out. Instead the bikes became an epitome of civic pride and responsibility. Other cities learned from Dublin.

But the anticipation of vandalism had been understandable, because Ireland had a thick file on the subject.

Most obvious had been CowParade, in 2003, when 10 decorated model cattle were spread across the city, as had been done in cities across the world. Within a week every one had been vandalised. And not just with graffiti. One literally had its wings clipped. Another lost its head in an act that required serious hacking. “The awful thing is,” a spokeswoman said at the time, “we were kind of expecting it in Dublin.”

Not that it was particular to the capital. A week later a resin pig was taken from a floating sculpture in Galway. The city had previously seen Pádraic Ó Conaire’s beheading in Eyre Square. Drink had been taken, just as it was when Phil Lynott’s Dublin statue was damaged last year.

It has been argued that the regular giving over of our town centres to drunkenness – and all its byproducts – has bred a disrespect for public spaces, facilitating graffiti and vandalism. It has also been suggested that the destruction of monuments is a legacy of a long history of nationalists damaging empire-era monuments – although that’s a stretch when it comes to tagging Molly Malone’s heaving bosom.

Nevertheless, there has long been a cynicism towards sculptures and public art in particular, and the artefacts must work hard to win over a prejudiced population. The Spire of Dublin was derided long before it was erected, partly as a hangover from the way the Anna Livia fountain had been turned into the city’s biggest rubbish bin – and occasional bubble bath – until it was finally removed from O’Connell Street.

That in turn followed the Bowl of Light, which sprawled the length of O’Connell Bridge from 1953 and was the focus of derision from the off. Myles Na gCopaleen slated it. The Royal Hibernian Academy called for the removal of the “tawdry contraption”. Within days a Trinity student had torn the plastic flames from the bowl and flung them in the Liffey.

That art had its nickname, the Tomb of the Unknown Gurrier, just like almost every well-known piece since. There is the thought that such cherished waggishness feeds an undercurrent of disrespect for street furniture.

And still vandalism occasionally rises above mere nuisance. When someone put a plaque on O’Connell Bridge in 2006, commemorating a “Fr Pat Noise” and his supposed plunging of his carriage into the Liffey, the damage to the stone was greeted with amusement rather than anger, because the combination of effort and mystery brought an audience and earned a respect.

In 2009 Conor Casby placed his Brian Cowen nudes, and accompanying captions, in the National Gallery and the RHA. Crude as their satire was, they ended up shedding a grim light on the humourlessness of the government, and the ludicrous deployment of gardaí, and briefly made the artist an anti-authoritarian hero.

The statue of Molly Malone is popular and uncomplicated, though, and its repeated defacement seems to be purely about a lack of respect for public spaces and the ubiquity of graffiti. But most of all it’s about her cleavage and the fact that it’s a siren to every lazy vandal in the city. @shanehegarty

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