We’ve a long running series on Come Here To Me looking at the statues of Dublin, ranging from the controversial (Sean Russell comes to mind) to the removed (Victoria for example), and even looking at unusual moments like the bombing of the Daniel O’Connell statue by loyalists in 1969.
One fascinating series of statues in Dublin we didn’t get around to however are the Marian statues that dot the city. All over Dublin, and especially working class pockets of the city and suburbs, statues to the Virgin Mary are to be found. Eoin O’Mahony in NUI Maynooth has been working on a thesis on the subject of Dublin’s Marian statues and it seemed right up our street for an interview. As Eoin states in the interview, “their significance comes from the fact that they are neither within churches or within people’s homes but on nominally public land.” It’s an interesting read, looking at what these statues mean today and if their place in the minds of Dubliners has been altered given the reports of child abuse in the church in recent years. If you’re like me, you’ll find that after reading this you’ll begin noticing these statues left, right and centre!
Eoin, what brought you to study Dublin’s Marian statues in the first place?
At the moment, I am researching public and private Catholicism in Ireland because I’m trying to understand what we mean by secularisation. A lot of formal social science research tends to put secularisation on the basis of a decline in religious influence. I think my own research tends towards placing religion in some spaces and not in others. That these spaces have meaning for fewer people is a lot more complex than saying religion is simply disappearing. And so I am looking at the maintenance and public discussion about these statues, about 28 of them across the city. Part of this is trying to understand why they are placed on green space near housing. Another part is trying to make sense about why they survive as places of significance for some. An entry question for me is, if Ireland is or has become more secular, why has no one taken a lump hammer to these stautes?
You said that you’re looking at 28 Marian statues in Dublin. I’ve seen some of them but are there really that many?
There are more than 28 for sure and they’re not all statues of Mary. A handful of them are Sacred Heart statues but that’s another story. I’ve noticed that most of them are in and near housing areas, most of them public housing areas built in and around the Marian Year of 1954. People might have noticed the large canopy on the junction of Gray and Reginald streets in Dublin 8. If you walk along Meath Street and look up to the right past the bookies you cannot miss it. It is a large canopied structure originally built as a water fountain until the top was knocked off during the War of Independence. The local residents created a Sacred Heart shrine of it after this time and it was rededicated for the Papal visit in 1979. Beyond that however, I would like to know how this maintains its meaning for people in that area and how it did it retain a status of not being an impediment to traffic for example. How something in the landscape that gets defined as an impediment goes to the heart of the re-creation that occurs in town planning. Now there’s nothing in the Corporation’s minutes about this or any other structure being erected or retained. I would like to figure out why not?
There’s a statue nearby in a new housing complex called the Timberyard, it’s on the corner of Weaver’s and Cork streets. If you look at the apex of the building there’s a small statue of Mary built into the building itself and has a kneeling step. The thing to note about this statue is that it re-places a statue that sat on that derelict site for over ten years. The old timber yard that used to lie here has been replaced by an apartment block called The Timberyard and the same statue sits on the site. In fact, the principal architect for this building told me that there was a specific request at planning stage for the statue to be placed on the site somewhere. The story goes that the original shrine was put in the skip when site clearance took place. One of the builders however took it back out and gave it to a local resident while the construction took place. The architect told me that a specific space was created for Our Lady of the Liberties in the new building because it meant something to those who were to move in there. In my own research I noted that it stands at a significant point of access although few enough people cross themselves when passing as may have been the case in the past.
So why are these statues interesting?
I don’t think they’re any more interesting than other statues in the city, for example the ones of Larkin or Connolly. To me however they represent a particular form of Catholicism that is found outside the church building but not domestic either. Their significance comes from the fact that they are neither within churches or within people’s homes but on nominally public land. There are several more statues of Mary in the suburbs of Dublin, notably in Cabra, Artane and Stillorgan. When I was starting out and told people that I was looking for where these statues were, people would say things like “I never noticed them before you asked me but now I see them all over the place”. To me this tells me that unless you are attuned to the religious they mean very little, a little like those signs you see indicating when you can park somewhere for a fee. You don’t go looking for them unless you have a car to park. For me, this is the religious: it is significance placed somewhere.
Because many of these are placed in the green spaces near public housing projects should, I think, tell us something about the constitution of public space. It would not have been out of the ordinary for these statues to take up green space in housing areas in the 1950s because very few would have objected to public Marian devotion. Rosaries were said at these statues, children would have played around them as focal points and they also add to the aesthetic pride of the place itself. In summer 2010, I photographed the Marian statue in Maryland Dublin 8 and I spoke with a man who maintains it. I came back about a fortnight later to take some more photos and the site had been repainted entirely with new bedding plants. His wife told me that the Council gave him paint to do it up. This tells me that the green areas are no different from the areas where the statues are: they’re focal points for a type of community that arises from Irish Catholicism.
When the people of what was Fatima Mansions were moving back into their new apartments and houses, the old statue of Our Lady of Fatima, having been broken on its removal, was replaced. To me, at this stage the new statue has not been placed anywhere within the new Reuben Street area although when I asked the development workers there in 2010, they said a consultation process was to take place about where it would go.
I was going to ask, why do people maintain them still?
In many cases they are not maintained on a very regular basis, particularly the later concrete ones e.g. Walkinstown. It is only in particular locations that these statues are maintained to a high level. When I went to ask people in interviews why they were maintained or why they themselves made efforts to keep them looking well, they could not tell me. This is another outcome of my work: the relative silence about these statues. Following the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports on sexual abuse I heard no one call for these statues to be taken down or for the space to be ‘reclaimed’ for the public. In fact, only last month the Council paid for a new sign to be erected at the green space opposite St Lukes in Drumcondra, and it is now designated as Our Lady’s Park. Those who live near them but do not maintain them show no disdain for them. Additionally, and this is most significant, there’s a kind of official silence about them. Dublin City Council maintains a database of public art and statuary across the city area. Not a single one of these Marian or Sacred Heart statues is catalogued in the database. Go to a book on Dublin’s heritage, academic or popular, and you’ll see no mention of Marian statues.
Have you found any evidence of these statues being targetted in recent times?
I have only found one instance of a statue being defaced and that is a minor piece of graffiti on the covered statue on Foley street. I think I have more work to do – but not for the doctoral research – on why this relative silence persists. All I know is that they exist on ground that would generally be considered public ground but yet are never contested as objects of devotion that has supposedly been privatised. In many cases, these statues were paid for by Catholics but no formal permission was ever sought for their erection. I have to ask why this is the case? Given that fewer people are now practicising Catholics, should they be reclaimed? What makes them part of Dublin’s ‘heritage’?
Thanks to Eoin O’Mahony for agreeing to be interviewed on the subject of Dublin’s Marian statues. The iconography of Dublin is something we’ve focused on with Come Here To Me, so I found this a fascinating insight into statues that are such a part of the landscape we tend to overlook them.