The Two Lukes: Never mind the scandal, feel the nostalgia

Review: The reasons why Dublin ended up with two statues of Dubliners singer Luke Kelly are largely overlooked

 President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, unveiling artist Vera Klute’s Luke Kelly statue, on Guild Street, Dublin,   earlier this year. Photogralph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, unveiling artist Vera Klute’s Luke Kelly statue, on Guild Street, Dublin, earlier this year. Photogralph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Dublin had waited half a lifetime for a statue commemorating one of its greatest musical sons. And then two came along at once. So begins The Two Lukes (RTÉ One, Monday 6.30pm), a chronicling by Adrian McCarthy of the unlikely chain of events that led Dublin City Council to unveil two statues of Dubliners singer Luke Kelly last January, marking the 35th anniversary of his death.

There is a potentially riveting story here. The council, seemingly leery of more traditional statues, commissioned an avant-garde design by visual artist Vera Klute. She gave us Luke Kelly as a looming, slightly terrifying, stone head, machine-tooled from Libyan marble and garnished with a mesh of orange wire “hair”( the piece can be enjoyed in all its bizarre glory in the north docklands). 

But Kelly’s family was wary of a work that pushed commemorative sculpture to its limits. Des Geraghty, the trade unionist and friend of Kelly’s, describes it here as a “death mask” that fails to capture the essence of the singer. Their preference was John Coll’s more conventional bronze rendering of Kelly strumming a banjo which now stands on South King Street in the city centre.

How could this bizarre situation – one which contravened the council’s own prohibitions against two statues of the same person – have been allowed develop? That seems the obvious question that the documentary would set out to unpick. However, The Two Lukes is determined for this to be a feelgood account and so is incurious about the bureaucratic contortions that led to public money being sunk into the competing designs (the Coll statue had started as a private commission yet was unveiled with the full support, and presumably financial backing, of the council).

That is a shame as one imagines a Byzantine tale is waiting to be told. Several representatives of Dublin City Council had even agreed to be interviewed. Why not put the bureaucrats to their collar-pins and ask them to explain why DCC had supported a cutting edge design, knowing Kelly’s family would have the power to veto it? How, for that matter, was the family finally persuaded to approve the Klute sculpture?

The President and wife Sabina after unveil John Coll’s after statue on South King Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
The President and  wife Sabina after unveiling John Coll’s statue on South King Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

Elsewhere The Two Lukes pushes our nostalgia buttons with gusto. Audio from a 1975 interview with Kelly communicates his enormous charisma. Schoolboys from Sheriff Street, where Kelly grew up, sing The Dubliners favourite Monto with a bright-eyed enthusiasm of which the artist would have approved. Mark Fay’s drawling narration is as authentically “Dublin” as a banana purchased from Moore Street and scoffed on the 46A bus.

Yet it is disappointing that The Two Lukes is reluctant to delve into the particulars of Kelly’s death in 1984. Footage from his funeral, and the huge crowd gathered to pay their respects, attests to his popularity. But there is nothing about his tragic decline as he tried to continue touring while battling a brain tumour. The documentary could also have done with more about Gerry Hunt, the illustrator who put €40,000 of his own money into commissioning the Coll statue, which he then donated to the city (that figure is not revealed on screen – I had to look it up. Nor is the cost to rate-payers of the Klute effigy provided) 

There’s a case to be made that the saga of Luke Kelly and his twin statues is a cautionary tale about what happens when big public institutions allow rarefied aesthetic judgments trump the public’s desire for a straightforward commemoration of a beloved citizen and it is left to a private citizen to take up the slack. The Two Lukes is winningly heartfelt regarding Kelly and his legacy. Yet the half-hour documentary cries out for a glint of journalistic steel. Rather like Klute’s huge Kelly noggin looming close to Sheriff Street, it ultimately rates as a missed opportunity.

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