The Department of Industry and Commerce building on Kildare Street is one I’d walked by all the time, before something caught my eye recently. The building was designed by Cork architect J.R Boyd Barrett, and constructed between 1939 and 1942, “being greatly delayed by the difficulty of obtaining materials, particularly steel, owing to the outbreak of the Second World War.”
The Buildings of Ireland website describes the premises as “one of Dublin’s most interesting twentieth-century architectural gems.” What caused me to stop recently passing by it were the bas-reliefs by Gabriel Hayes, depicting Irish industry through the ages. Described by Paula Murphy as being “carved in a vigorous socialist-realist style”, they are a remarkable artistic achievement.
Gabriel Hayes, James Durney has noted, was the daughter of a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who later became an architect with the Board of Works. Born in Holles Street in August 1909, she was educated at the Dominican College on Eccles Street. Having studied art in Paris and Montpelier, she spent five years in the National School of Art,Dublin. Durney notes that:
In her second year at college she won the teachers-in-training scholarship, and in 1933 she had five works exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy. In her masters certificate Gabriel came first in Ireland. She began exhibiting at the RHA in 1932 and continued to exhibit there until 1947.
While initially she focused her artistic endeavors on painting, she would later establish herself firmly as one of the leading sculptors of her time in Ireland. Married to Seán Ó Ríordáin, an academic and archaeologist based in University College Cork, she moved there in 1936.
That she carried out the works on Kildare Street at all is interesting, as she was not among the original group of sculptors invited to submit designs. This group included Laurence Campbell (responsible for the excellent Seán Heuston memorial in the Phoenix Park) and Oliver Sheppard (who gave us Cuchulain in the GPO in 1935). As Murphy has noted, “Hayes was subsequently approached and her designs and estimated cost of £930 met with approval. This is the work for which Gabriel Hayes is now best known.” Seán Lemass himself inspected the designs for the proposed works and gave them the go-ahead.
When she got down to the business at hand, journalists were impressed by the heights she was willing to scale.A journalist in the Irish Independent commented on 21 April 1942 that “when I arrived on a January day of snow and sleet,I was told that she was in the sort of built-up cage slung over the roof to work the ‘keystones over the two toweringly tall windows – 76 feet up. Being built by nature for comfort and not meant for high altitudes I promised to come back”
That a woman was carrying out the work grabbed plenty of column inches too. “Mother of two infants, aged 1 and 4, this Dublin-born artist has interrupted her life in Cork for one of the most important sculpturing tasks in Dublin for a some time” the Irish Press proclaimed. David Dickson, in his groundbreaking study of Dublin through the ages, makes the point that “the prospect of a mother working outside the home was contrary to the whole drift of government thinking in the pre-war years. Opportunities for women to stay at work had been seriously impaired by legislation in 1936 that overturned statutory advances in 1919 and required all women to resign from the public service with no hope of re-employment, even on widowhood, and excluded all women from certain categories of work.”
Still, Hayes was more than qualified, mother or not. The Press went on to state that:
Her work on the Kildare Street building is original in conception and strongly executed.Beside the head of Eire at the main entrance there is a head of St. Brendan, Ireland’s first navigator, at the side.Along a 30-foot gallery, Miss Hayes is to carve a further series of scenes in low relief depicting Irish industry and commerce. Her subjects include: The Shannon Scheme, the Cement Factories, the Wool Industry,Ship-Building.
Paula Murphy correctly points out that for the most part, journalists seemed to overlook the quality of her work on the building, instead fixating on trivial things, as “little was written about this significant work at the time. Journalists seemed more excited that a woman had received the commission and that she was brave enough to work on scaffolding hanging high outside the building.”
An article in a regional newspaper in 1957 stated that “for many years, sculpture was regarded as the Cinderella of the Arts in Ireland. A few small pieces – carvings, in wood or stone, modellings in clay or plaster, were scattered around the floor of the Hibernian Academy Exhibition as if for people to lean against while they admired the paintings.”The same piece however praised the work of Hayes, and noted that “modern Irish sculpture is closely linked with architecture.”
Hayes would later design the halfpenny,penny and two pence coins introduced here in 1971. She died in 1978, recognised in obituaries not as a “woman sculptor” or a working mother, but a brilliant talent by the definition of anyone.Next time you’re passing by, stop and have a look at her work on Kildare Street.