Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1964 – Wolfe Tone, by Edward Delaney
The sculptor’s vision of the Irish revolutionary – jokingly dubbed ‘Tonehenge’ – is a fitting tribute to a perplexing figure as well as the perplexing nation for which Delaney made it
Monolithic: the Wolfe Tone monument, which Edward Delaney repaired after Loyalists blew it up in 1971. Photograph: Frank Miller
As Ireland became more self-confident in the booming 1960s, the idea of having a distinctive kind of public monument took hold. Especially in the context of the looming 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the question of how to commemorate in sculpture the heroes of the nationalist tradition acquired a new resonance.
In 1964 the sculptor Eddie Delaney and the architect Noel Keating won a competition to make the Wolfe Tone monument at the corner of St Stephen’s Green, in Dublin. That year Delaney was selected to make another major public sculpture for the city centre: the Thomas Davis memorial on College Green.
Unveiled in 1967, his statue of Wolfe Tone avoids imitating imperial sculpture. As Delaney put it, he preferred to portray young heroes, “not old fogeys”. Equally, it contrasts with the abstract, comparatively bland form of Henry Moore’s Standing Figure Knife Edge, the monument to WB Yeats erected elsewhere on St Stephen’s Green that year.
Wolfe Tone is an awkward and conflicted figure who unwittingly evokes the lack of resolution in Irish nationalist history. Brian Fallon, The Irish Times’s art critic, described it as “a massive, lumpy rough-hewn affair”.
Tone stands in isolation in front of Keating’s 1960s-looking framework of granite monoliths, which prompted the nickname Tonehenge. This construction separates it from its companion piece, the Famine Memorial, located just behind the stonework. Here three emaciated figures refer to the ultimate failure of the 1798 Rebellion and Tone’s attempt to liberate Ireland. Delaney said, “This is not a victory monument.” Tone “wanted all Ireland independent and united . . . If Tone had succeeded I doubt if the Famine would have been allowed to happen.”
From a sculptural point of view the Famine trio provides an intimacy and pathos lacking in the public figure of Tone. It also acts out a subtext that undermines the dominant egocentric view of history usually associated with public memorial sculpture.
A similar conflict is evident in the Thomas Davis memorial, which competes with the ascendancy setting, framed by the Bank of Ireland and Trinity College, and with the horrendous traffic of College Green. The rugged handling of the bronze figure of Davis is in sharp contrast to the delicate treatment of John Henry Foley’s nearby Henry Grattan Memorial, from 1876. A fountain flanked by angels that stands in front of the plinth holding Davis goes some way to tempering the elevated scale of the sculpture.
Both Davis and Tone reveal Delaney’s difficulty in reconciling his modernist practice and his perception of history with the classical conventions of commemorative statuary. As well as paying homage to their heroic efforts, the figures’ cumbersome poses acknowledge their subjects’ flawed legacy to Irish history. After all, Davis died aged 30, just as the Famine was taking hold, while Tone expired, tragically, after a failed revolution.
If public engagement with art is any sign of its value, Tone and Davis have proved their worth: the Davis fountain is regularly filled with soap suds, and the dog in the Famine group was stolen in 1968. But the ultimate act of vandalism against Delaney’s public sculpture came when Tone was blown up by loyalist extremists in February 1971. Delaney, who cast the figure of Tone himself, in his foundry in Dún Laoghaire, was able to repair it and have it back in place by November of that year.
The sculpture is ungainly, with the proportions and demeanour of an adolescent. But Delaney’s vision of Tone, like him or not, provides a fitting monument to this perplexing figure – and the equally perplexing nation for which it was made.
You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie
Your favourite work so far
The winner of our summer competition, in which readers were asked to write about their favourite artwork in our series so far, is Elaine Kelly Conroy. She receives a copy of the Royal Irish Academy’s five-volume ‘Art and Architecture of Ireland’. Here’s a short version of her article, about Harry Clarke’s Eve of St Agnes window.