Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1978 – James Larkin statue, by Oisín Kelly

With its pose taken from a famous photograph of the union leader addressing a crowd, the statue on O’Connell Street is one of the most dynamic public works in Dublin

Energy: the stance of Oisín Kelly’s statue captures the activist passion of James Larkin. Photograph: Frank Miller

Energy: the stance of Oisín Kelly’s statue captures the activist passion of James Larkin. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

When Oisín Kelly completed his statue of the union leader James Larkin, in 1978, he was not to know that it was to be among his final works. He was at the height of his power, the go-to sculptor for public commissions in Ireland.

That Larkin would be commemorated by a monument in Dublin was proposed in 1959 by the Workers’ Union of Ireland, which Larkin had set up in 1924, after his expulsion from the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (which he had also established). But it was 1974, the centenary of Larkin’s birth, before the commemoration got under way. (Larkin had claimed to be two years younger than he was, which resulted in his centenary celebrations taking place in 1976 and the date of his birth inscribed on the monument having to be corrected, to read 1874.)

The memorial committee, comprising the great and the good of the union, included Donal Nevin (later general secretary of the ICTU), who was instrumental in choosing the sculptor. Kelly was an inspired choice, as the resulting statue is one of the most dynamic public works in the centre of Dublin. Only John Henry Foley’s representation of Henry Grattan, from 1876, on College Green, exudes a similar energy. In these two works, emphatic gesture and naturalistic treatment of the men’s clothing create a liveliness in the figures. Foley’s 19th-century concern was to create a contrast with his statues of Goldsmith and Burke, positioned opposite, in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin. Kelly’s 20th-century aspiration was to please both his patron and the public.

Kelly, who had not known Larkin, chose to use a familiar image of the man. Joseph Cashman had photographed Larkin addressing a crowd in Dublin in 1923. He looked so vital and passionate that the photograph had become iconic.

Once his maquette was approved, Kelly began work on the plaster model in the backyard of his family home, in Firhouse, outside Dublin. Kelly’s neighbour Eddie Golden, the actor, posed for the statue. When the full-size model was completed it was transferred to Dublin Art Foundry, where it was cast in bronze by Leo Higgins and John Behan.

Although ready for unveiling in 1978, a delay ensued while attempts were made to quarry a colossal stone for the pedestal. Larkin’s son Denis was keen that it be carved from a single piece of granite, which proved impossible. Also, President Patrick Hillery’s decision to perform the unveiling necessitated careful consideration of his speech. The writing of several drafts ensured that his language was neither controversial nor ambiguous; the word “comrades”, present in early drafts, did not appear in the final text. The statue was unveiled on June 15th, 1979.

The sculpture has a commanding presence on O’Connell Street, where it has become one of the most popular monuments in Dublin. It regularly serves as a site of celebration and demonstration, and is often a central motif in photographs of union members and politicians of the left gathering for anniversaries, or of crowds of the aggrieved and dissatisfied marching past.

The quotation on the pedestal, in French, Irish and English, dates back to the French Revolution: “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”

You can read more about Oisín Kelly in the the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

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