Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1935 – The Death of Cúchulainn, by Oliver Sheppard
The sculptor’s famous statue, at the GPO in Dublin, shows how hard it is to fix a historic moment in Irish culture
Distinct perspective: Oliver Sheppard’s statue was inspired not by the Easter Rising but by the Celtic revivalist interest in the myth of Cúchulainn. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Éamon de Valera, who came to power in the Irish Free State in 1932, always understood the power of his status as the senior surviving leader of the Easter Rising of 1916. It was he who chose Oliver Sheppard’s sculpture to serve as the official memorial to the Rising in the run-up to its 20th anniversary. At the elaborate unveiling ceremony in the General Post Office in Dublin on April 21st, 1935, he described the work as “a beautiful piece of sculpture, the creation of Irish genius, symbolising the dauntless courage and abiding constancy of our people”.
Sheppard’s image of the death of the mythic warrior hero Cúchulainn was meant to link cultural nationalism to political independence, “dying for Ireland” and, by implication at least, to de Valera himself. The reconstructed GPO was now, as a sceptical Samuel Beckett put it in 1938, holy ground.
This was an inspired act of appropriation, because Sheppard had not created his Cúchulainn as a monument to Easter 1916. He modelled the figure from life in 1911-12 and exhibited it at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1914. His inspiration came from the Celtic revivalist interest in the myth of Cúchulainn, taken up by figures as diverse as WB Yeats, George Russell and Patrick Pearse, who saw his school, St Enda’s, re-creating the tradition of the young hero and who linked the warrior’s self-sacrifice to that of Christ.
The heroic male nude based on myth was conventional in European sculpture in the years leading to the Great War. The fluent naturalism of the figure’s modelling was typical of the French sculptural tradition associated with Auguste Rodin, among others. (Sheppard had studied in London and Paris.) The most visually striking aspect of the figure is its similarity to traditional sculptures and images of the dead Christ.
Although much admired, the sculpture remained unsold in Sheppard’s studio, on Pembroke Road, until, on the advice of the solicitor and art collector John L Burke, de Valera visited the studio and designated it as the official memorial to the Rising. Cast in bronze in Brussels, it was placed in the GPO in December 1934, for unveiling in Easter Week 1935.
Just as de Valera appropriated Sheppard’s sculpture for his own purposes, however, others could appropriate it for theirs. The link between Cúchulainn and the Rising is echoed in Yeats’s poem The Statues: “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side, / What stalked through the Post Office?” The government used it on the 1916 veterans’ medal and on the 1966 commemorative 10-shilling piece. It also appeared on a postage stamp and on savings certificates. Images of a miniature replica were used indiscriminately for advertising and for sports trophies.
On the other hand, in the first novel of the more sceptical Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938), a suicidal character, Neary, “seized the dying hero by the thighs and began to dash his head against his buttocks, such as they are”.
Loyalists later appropriated Sheppard’s image during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, pointing out that in the ancient saga Cúchulainn had defended Ulster against “the men of Ireland”. In a postmodern consumerist age, images and versions of the sculpture have been overlaid with whatever meaning was desired. An attempt to fix forever a heroic moment instead showed how hard it is in Irish culture to pin anything down, even if it’s cast in bronze.
You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art & Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie