Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1943 – Three Graces, by Gabriel Hayes

The artist’s variation on the classical sculpture of Zeus’s daughters, for Dublin’s domestic science college, depicted women in a new way

Women’s work: Archbishop McQuaid said of the college, now part of DIT, on Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin, “here will be trained the women who will assist in building happy homes, for here will be imparted right knowledge and practice of the home craft.” Photograph: Dave Meehan

Women’s work: Archbishop McQuaid said of the college, now part of DIT, on Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin, “here will be trained the women who will assist in building happy homes, for here will be imparted right knowledge and practice of the home craft.” Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

The school of culinary arts and food technology at Dublin Institute of Technology opened to its first students in 1941, on Cathal Brugha Street, as St Mary’s College of Domestic Science. Part of the plan for the art-deco building was to place sculpture in chamfered bays outside, at either end of the entrance facade. The sculpture didn’t materialise for several years – but when it did arrive it was notable for its depiction of women.

At the building’s opening a souvenir publication noted that groups of sculpture carved in Irish limestone would be installed in due course, to complete the original design. Two years later the architectural practice that designed the college, Robinson & Keefe, put an advertisement in daily newspapers inviting sculptors to submit estimates and to sketch designs. The sculptures were to represent the “instructional work” of the college, and winner would be required to submit models for approval.

The contract was awarded to Gabriel Hayes in November 1943. She was to receive £1,470 for the sculptures, paid in instalments, and allowed three years to carry out the work.

Hayes had recently completed sculptural work on the facade of the new department of industry and commerce, on Kildare Street (whose building now houses the Departments of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation and of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht).

Little was written about this significant work at the time. Journalists seemed more excited that a woman had received the commission and that she was brave enough to work on scaffolding hanging high outside the building.

It was her sculptures that should have been applauded. The carved reliefs, which she finished in 1942, depict Ireland’s industrial progress, with images of aviation, shipbuilding, the tobacco industry and more, all carved in a vigorous socialist-realist style.

Hayes (who later designed the ½p, 1p and 2p coins) had little opportunity to include women in these sculptures – only one is visible – as the chairman of the board of commissioners preferred to depict men at work. By contrast, images of women were particularly apt for the Cathal Brugha Street building, which was originally dedicated to “women’s work”. (At the opening of the college, on June 16th, 1941, John Charles McQuaid, the archbishop of Dublin, declared, “I am glad to bless this house, because its work will reach to the foundations of human society. Here, in fact, will be trained the women who will assist in building happy homes, for here will be imparted right knowledge and practice of the home craft.”)

In the end Hayes completed only one of the two sculpture groups for the college of domestic science. Known as The Three Graces, it shows three young women doing a range of the domestic activities, notably cleaning and sewing, that were taught there.

Hayes’s depiction of femininity – she modelled the life-size figures on friends – was unusual in public sculpture in the first half of the 20th century. Her clothed, active variation on The Three Graces is markedly different from classical representations, where the three women – daughters of Zeus, representing creativity, charm and beauty – are shown nude, with little more than their attributes, such as apples, myrtle and dice, to hand.

Sculptures of nude women would not appear on buildings in Dublin for another 50 years. The girls in the sculpture on Cathal Brugha Street are accompanied by more mundane and practical attributes, including a brush and a sewing basket.

Referred to occasionally also as The Three Fates, Hayes’s sculpture, on a building dedicated to so-called women’s work, might well have been loosely interpreted in this way. In Greek mythology the Fates were the weavers of destiny – in this instance the destiny of women to have their lives associated with domestic work.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

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