Moving art: The best public artworks on Ireland’s roads
As we drive by en route to our staycation, we have mere seconds to take in these sights
This summer, as we take to the roads less travelled, little do we anticipate the sculpture exhibition that awaits us as we traverse the country. Dotted along the motorways are a multitude of magnificent artworks that reverberate with local history and legend. Some, made from wood and stone, rest so easily on the landscape that we barely notice them. Others, more colourful and bright, demand to be noticed, reshaping old stories in a new guise.
The Gaelic Chieftain on the N4, north of Boyle, Co Roscommon or The Brown Bull of Cooley on the R173 in Louth are immediately recognisable to us. They animate our Celtic past, connecting at a primeval level not easily stirred by the more contemporary sculptures. Through the Percent for Art Scheme (where 1 per cent of the budget for major State construction projects is spent on commissioning public art) we own these large sculptures; they are our very own drive-by sculpture gallery.
Brian O’Loughlin’s Passage resonates with a sense of the past, acting as a conduit between the ages. Striding tall across the flat midland bogs on the Dublin/Galway Kilbride bypass, this six-strong bog oak family was inspired by Mesolithic man’s journey to awareness. Each 10m body is hewn from a single oak trunk thrown up as the new motorway disturbed the ancient bogland. Lunar-shaped heads, made of cast aluminium and powdered gold, represent the growth of wisdom that comes with the passage of time. The leading adult has accumulated great knowledge while the stragglers still have much to learn. One straggler, the smallest, was blown into the bog during the February storms but will soon be reunited with this noble family.
Lynn Kirkham’s Ghost Horses, just off the Dublin/Cork M8 at Kildare, rouses a similar subliminal familiarity. The name alone appeals to Irish sensibilities. Modelled on Kirkham’s own herd, Ghost Horses is skeletal, bursting with frantic energy, racing ghost-like untethered and wild across the plains of the Curragh.
Race of the Black Pig, spread over two furlongs on the M7 Kildare bypass, offers none of the visceral connection inspired by bog oak, but its shape and colour attract curiosity. The name refers to an ancient track running from Meath to Priesthaggard in Co Wexford, while the slim, reflective posts recreate the familiar rails of the nearby racecourse. The posts seem to shift and prance like racehorse legs while the colourful wings attached to some recall Pegasus, the mythical Greek winged horse. Juxtaposed with Pegasus is St Bridget’s Cross, the intricate weave simplified down to single lengths of steel. Brightly coloured, semi-abstract oak leaves recall her first monastery founded under an oak tree in Kildare. We, the motorists, disappear into the installation as the posts absorb the changing light of the landscape and passing cars, fusing everything into a single artwork. Headlights illuminate the poles at night, further sustaining the sense of suspended movement as we race past the post.
Cornelia Konrad likes her pieces to settle into the landscape. Settlement, on the M8 Cahir bypass, appears as a typical Irish cottage ruin, but with the large windows and smooth rendering of a modern house. The rendering rises to blend with the older, weathered stone which seems to be suspended, either falling before our eyes or taking flight. This ethereal flight/fall of stone reflects the continuing decay of ruins and the eventual decline of newer buildings which must, in turn, crumble into the past. Passersby are unsure whether it is a ruin or an artwork. Many fail to notice it at all.
Some sculptures are whimsical and playful, such as Tower of Imagination, on the Dublin/Belfast A1. Inspired by a visit to the local Sticky Fingers Montessori school, Maurice Harron created the 24ft structure to celebrate the children of Newry and to remind people of the simplicity of childhood. Two gangly children look out at passing traffic while, in their tumbling towerhouse, colourful animals and monsters peer through crooked windows. This quirky house brings a smile of wonder and curiosity.
Dandelion, near Nenagh on the N7, also brings us back to simpler childhoods. The small figure, cheeks puffed, is blowing hard at the larger-than-life dandelion clocks, carved in bas-relief on the 4m-high sandstone. Just as the dandelion seeds are scattered, so too are we travellers dispersed around the country, carrying the seeds even further as they cling to passing cars.
Although Robert McColgan and Irene Brenner collaborated on both Beehive Huts at Balbriggan bypass and Doon on the Portlaoise bypass, Doon is a much more challenging piece for us to interpret and appreciate. The cut stone Beehive Huts were inspired by St Molach, a Welsh man who brought bee-keeping to Ireland and founded a monastery in nearby Bremore. But Doon? What is it about? What does it mean? It is a stainless steel earthwork. An earthwork is an embankment of earth pushed up to provide fortification. Viewed from the air the semi-circles of Doon push up from the landscape, curving across the motorway to create an earthwork ring through which we drive. The precisely shaped rings are located to act as a welcoming and protective gateway to Portlaoise and the Midlands.
The High Kings of Munster (Na hArd Ríthe) stand in watch on the M8 as we bypass their home, the Rock of Cashel. Created by Orla de Brí, these 20ft-high imposing figures, of gold, bronze and steel, stand in the shape of birds in flight. These elegant kings reflect the setting sun as they look out across the ruins and changing landscape of their forgotten kingdom as we, the new faces of Ireland, are reflected in their polished steel faces. Each shield imitates a carving from the Rock of Cashel – a serpent, St Bridget, a lion, a gargoyle – and the Rock of Cashel itself. The striking gold leaf crowns add a sense of majesty to this imposing group. The cast of an open hand fused onto one of the figures offers the protection of a mother as drivers speed past – a gesture to de Brí’s own mother.
Like the first blade that digs into virgin soil to begin the complex work of building a national motorway, Joe Neeson’s The Cut, on the M8 Fermoy bypass, remembers the blade of the old field mower as it cuts into fresh farmland. While the new road will always be a scar on the original landscape, the polished stainless steel daggers absorb the colours of the sky and immediate countryside, allowing them to disappear back into nature.
However, it is the 3D sculpture The Final Piece of the Jigsaw, on the N5 in Mayo, that echoes our frustration as we slow to a standstill or take the dreaded detour to facilitate interminable roadworks. Created using corten steel, these two large jigsaw pieces represent the celebrated final piece of the complex puzzle that is the building of a motorway, the pleasure derived when the last bollard is removed. As we cruise along the finished product it is estimated that, at 100km per hour, we have a mere four seconds to appreciate these monumental sculptures.
There are many more magnificent works lining the grassy verges of our national roads. Some inspire wonder, some challenge us, others prompt conversation, many are decorated in the county colours. Either way, as we set out on our staycation, the rainy day usually allocated to the arts can, literally, begin the minute we hit the road.