Ireland’s sculptures: Where are the women?

Women have as much right to be commemorated in public spaces as men

A widespread refrain around public sculpture points to an absence of women – or at least to the fact that there is insufficient representation of women – among the figurative images in Irish public spaces, where statues of men predominate.

Yet across the western world there are innumerable images of women in the public squares and streets. Is there any public statue that is more widely known and loved than the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) in New York? When the people of France have a grievance with their lot in life, they gather to demonstrate in Paris around the statue of la République – a towering image of a woman – in the Place of the same name. And if the Statue of Liberty and la République are both colossal representations of women, the Motherland Calls, sometimes known as Mother Russia, in Volgograd, commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad, claims to be the tallest statue in Europe and the tallest statue of a woman in the world.

Similar, but less monumental, representations of womanhood are manifest in public sculpture in Ireland in the form of Erin/Éire whose solitary or accompanied presence is found on nationalist monuments throughout the country. The Dublin O’Connell Monument includes a figure of Erin on the drum section just below O’Connell, as well as four other prominently positioned female figures.

The latter – larger-than-life winged Victory figures – have a supporting role, radiating at the base. However, these and the sculptures mentioned above do not depict “real-life women” but are all allegorical representations, women imbued with immortality. Where, one might well ask, are the mortal women? The procession of sculpted figures on the O’Connell Monument approaching Erin symbolise, according to the sculptor John Henry Foley, the people of Ireland – among whom are poets, painters, peers, priests, peasants, politicians – all of whom are men.


Apart from O’Connell on the monument, the men depicted are generic, representing different roles in life rather than themselves, not individual portraits. O’Connell, as one might expect, the only person to be portrayed on the monument, typifies the “real-life” figures on pedestals across the city and beyond. Men standing, men seated, men in bronze, men in marble, named individuals – statues of Wolfe Tone, Lord Ardilaun, William Smith O’Brien, William Dargan, Oscar Wilde, Seán Heuston, James Connolly; busts of James Clarence Mangan, Michael Collins, Thomas Kettle, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney.

This is a small indication of the abundant portrait images of Irish men in the public spaces, seemingly representing the many professions and none, but in reality largely political and literary figures. A number of these men even have double representation as they can be found in both statue and bust format – James Joyce on North Earl Street (statue), in St Stephen’s Green (bust), and yet another bust on the UCD campus. A recent commemoration of singer Luke Kelly in Dublin saw two statues of him erected simultaneously. One of these might have made way for a statue of Deirdre O’Connell, once Kelly’s wife, whose Focus Theatre was a tiny gem that maintained a serious presence within Dublin’s theatre scene for many decades.

Where are the women?

So where are the women? This question echoes the title of Sara Sheridan’s book Where are the Women? A Guide to an Imagined Scotland, published in 2019. In her book, fictional statues but also streets and buildings are dedicated to real women, bringing to notice the Scottish women who have been ignored/overlooked in public commemoration. In London, the Public Statues and Sculpture Association is recording on its new database the statues of women across the United Kingdom and urging the public to help them augment the list. Most of the statues of women listed are representations of mythical and allegorical figures, more of the immortals rather than portraits of real people.

There is absolutely no requirement to undertake such an exercise in Ireland. In Dublin alone the database would comprise a small number of statues, some of which, Anna Livia and Molly Malone for example, fall into the immortal category, others such as Meeting Place fall into the generic section.

Under the heading “statues of historic Irish women” in this hypothetical database of public sculpture in Dublin, five sculptures would feature. These five represent: a nun (Baggot Street); a mayoress (Marlborough Street) and a politician (St Stephen’s Green, Leinster House, Townsend Street). In other words, three famous Irish women are commemorated on the streets of Dublin. Representations of the politician Countess Markievicz just happen to occupy three pedestals.

The honouring of a person by way of a public statue invites people to get to know the individual, to ask questions

Where are the statues of other historic Irish women? Politicians such as Frances Power Cobbe, Kathleen Lynn, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Margaret Skinnider and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. And writers such as Maria Edgeworth; Sydney, Lady Morgan; Anna Jameson; Maeve Brennan and Mary Lavin. These and many other women have as much right to be commemorated on pedestals in the public spaces as their male counterparts.

A public portrait statue is first and foremost both an artwork and a commemoration – a creation and a visual record – after which it serves a number of purposes. One of these purposes is to enliven the space in which it is located, another is to educate. This is of particular significance with regard to the absence of images of historic Irish women. The honouring of a person by way of a public statue invites people to get to know the individual, to ask questions: Why is this person represented in a statue? What did they do? Why are they important? That “real-life” Irish women continue to be overlooked for such public commemoration perpetuates for further generations the ongoing failure to consider seriously women’s contribution to life in all its aspects over centuries in Ireland.

Paula Murphy is professor emerita at the school of art history and cultural policy at University College Dublin and a steering-group member of Sculpture Dublin, which is organising a range of events in the run-up to International Sculpture Day, on April 24th, to encourage Dubliners to rediscover the city through public sculpture