Sculpting a life from statues

Eamon Delaney with his 16-months-old son, Ciaran, at the Wolfe Tone sculpture by his father Edward Delaney, on St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photograph by Eric Luke

Eamon Delaney with his 16-months-old son, Ciaran, at the Wolfe Tone sculpture by his father Edward Delaney, on St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photograph by Eric Luke


BIOGRAPHY: Breaking the Mould: A Story of Art and IrelandBy Eamon Delaney, New Island, 307pp. €16.99

JAMES JOYCE once had a character remark that there are only two kinds of statue: one holding an arm out in lofty contempt, as if to say “in my day the dung-hill was so high”, and the other looking nervously down on fellow-citizens, as if to ask “for God’s sake, how do I get down out of here?”. Edward Delaney’s statues of Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Davis are more in the latter than the former style. They depict anxious young rebels rather than smugly iconic heroes.

There is something inherently vulnerable, even comical, about most public statues. Like the clowns in a colourful circus, they stand still and go on revealing themselves in all their humanity, frozen forever at the mercy of a single moment. In this affectionate and intrepid memoir of his sculptor-father, Eamon Delaney notices how certain parts of the Tone monument have been rubbed to a shiny intensity by late-night jokers, who sometimes wrap scarves around the patriot’s throat.

Like so many artists’ sons, the younger Delaney seems to have seen his father’s mind only in patches, but here he uses the sculptures themselves, as well as dozens of press-cuttings, to attempt a fuller picture. In a sense, he reads the sculptures, in their amazing variety, as his father’s implied autobiography. When asked what physical model he had for Tone, Delaney tersely answered “myself”.

He believed that a commemoration of the past could also be shot through with a sense of experiment, possibility and even longing. Though trained partly in 1950s Germany, his was essentially a 1960s sensibility, which tried to remember the future even as it imagined the past. Such a programme fitted very well with the modernising Fianna Fáil of that decade, whose leaders gave many commissions. De Valera, who delighted Delaney by looking like a public statue even as he clung to life, shaped the informing spirit at the time of the Easter Rising’s 50th anniversary by linking ideals of “service” and “love”. Eamon Delaney more than once notes a mixture of Victorian self-improvement and hippy tenderness linking the Long Fellow to his own father’s regime in the family home in Dún Laoghaire.

The Davis statue in College Green appeared to the son as if it had always stood there, “the best tribute you can give”. The farmyard scenes on its panels were a reminder of the rural origins of many of the 1960s mohair men, and of the Mayo boy who in a Dylanesque trajectory said that he ran way from childhood scribbling to acclaim as an artist in a big city.

But, eventually, parts of the Davis monument were broken by climbers, the water-pumps failed and the fountain was nick-named ‘Urination Once Again’ (rather akin to the brass elephant erected by Napoleon after his African campaign as a snub to the rebels of 1789 but soon knicknamed the ‘Elephant of Revolutionary Forgetfulness’ by derisive Parisians, after its tusks fell off). Undaunted, Eddie Delaney saw this set-back as a golden opportunity to perfect his work, reversing the surrounding angels so that they now faced outward rather than inward. He was cross enough to write a letter of complaint when few citizens noticed the alterations.

He was a versatile, resourceful man, who combined a guild-like sense of craft with a spirit of modernist experimentation. A good chapter here describes in detail how he made casts. Never an abstract theorist, he reshaped the physical world in order to understand it (and himself) more fully. His energy was unquenchable. He did the art-work for LP covers of The Chieftains. He did the sets for a memorable Abbey version of The Well of the Saints, directed by Tom Murphy. He allowed Francis Ford Coppola to use his work on the film Dementia 13(“That fecker still owes me money,” he complained forever after, being unsatisfied with a mere 10-shilling note offered for drinks).

Eamon Delaney circles around these themes, moving back and forward in time, rather than pursuing a strictly chronological line. The father’s interest in Famine themes, he helpfully suggests, may have been informed by his time in a ravaged Germany still recovering from war and want.

Legend has it that Delaney bypassed the usual entrance tests for the National College of Art and “just turned up to classes”. From his experience in Germany, he bore back to Ireland a letter of introduction from Oskar Kokoschka to Jack Yeats, but apparently tore it up on discovering that the Irish painter had died before he could visit him. He had, or may have had, the mandatory Swedish girlfriend for a while, but said afterwards with wry wistfulness: “I was only carrying her purse”.

What is certain is that for a brief time he challenged the hegemony of literature in the arts of this nation, and of painting within the Irish visual tradition. At one stage, says his son, a sequence of his sculptures could be viewed in a line from Ballsbridge to the city centre. The Irish Timeswas a lot less sympathetic to these works than the Irish Press – on the Wolfe Tone work on St Stephens Green, the latter exulted that “for once a major Irish sculpture will be neither shrouded in traffic nor locked up after sunset”. It was, however, bombed by loyalists in 1971.

The artist emerges as a mischievous, roguish fellow. He and his wife and children lived in two adjoining houses in Dún Laoghaire, where he also had his studio. If a tax-collector knocked on one door, Delaney invariably opened the other. His son compares him at one point to Charles Haughey, in that he combined wildness with a conviction of his own grandeur and a hint of self-mockery (some might find the self-deflation easier to believe of Delaney than of The Horseman of Kinsealy). Like Haughey, he managed to be at once an establishment figure and an eternal outsider: another version of the Irishman as Tory Anarchist.

Eamon Delaney’s voyage around his father reveals a man so enraptured by the artistic process that in his final years in Connemara he treated the whole world as sculpture. He had the talent, but also the confidence and drive to produce lasting works of art. And the serene self-belief. When a Dún Laoghaire tobacconist muttered a complaint to a customer about “another artist who doesn’t pay taxes”, Delaney overheard the remark and gave a clear reply: “I am unique. I cannot be replaced – whereas if you were gone, what would replace you? Just another man in a sweet-shop”.

Declan Kiberd teaches at UCD. His most recent book is Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, published by Faber