Paula Murphy’s handsome volume on sculpture in Ireland gives a comprehensive account of Ireland’s many monuments, statues and busts, whether by Irishmen (and women) or by non-Irish artists. Despite its title, the study is not confined to the nineteenth century, but goes back to 1701, when Grinling Gibbons’ equestrian statue of William III was erected in Dublin, and continues through to the twentieth century, when (alas) many of the monuments described were destroyed — including William III, blown up in 1928.

Dr. Murphy identifies three main groups of sculptors. The ‘first generation’ included Terence Farrell, Thomas Kirk and the Rome-based John Hogan and flourished until the 1850s. The 1860s — 80s saw keen competition between the ‘second generation’, represented by Thomas Farrell and Joseph Kirk, and the London-based John Henry Foley. The works of the ‘third generation’ — John Hughes, Oliver Sheppard and the American-based Augustus Saint-Gaudens — mainly appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Two works J. H. Foley — Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Politics and religion were always major influences on public statuary in Ireland; the person to be commemorated, the location of the monument, and the choice of sculptor were all potential flashpoints. Until the 1850s only kings or national heroes like Nelson and Wellington were commemorated in Dublin — a situation that one nationalist politician described as highlighting ‘the haughty mastery of the English people and our servility and helplessness’. The first public recognition of an ‘ordinary Irishman’ — Joseph Kirk’s 1852 monument to a little-known doctor called Philip Crampton — was described as ‘maniacal in conception’. Fortunately, more appropriate tributes to Irish achievements soon followed, with Christopher Moore’s statue of the poet Thomas Moore (1857) and Foley’s Oliver Goldsmith (1864) and Edmund Burke (1868). However, none of these had risked their lives for their native land, an omission remedied in 1870 by Thomas Farrell’s statue of the revolutionary William Smith O’Brien.

The stage was now set for the commemoration of the grandest Irish patriot of his time, Daniel O’Connell. The foundation stone for the proposed monument was laid in 1864 and two competitions were held to select the sculptor, attracting a total of eighty entrants. All the designs were rejected and the commission was controversially awarded to John Henry Foley, who had entered neither competition.

In Dr. Murphy’s words, Foley was ‘without doubt the best-known and certainly the most important of the Irish sculptors’. Dublin-born but London-based, many regarded him as more English than Irish; but the O’Connell committee wanted the best man available, ignoring Foley’s previous selection for an ‘imperialist’ memorial, the equestrian statue of the Field Marshal Gough. Sadly Foley died while both monuments were still in his studio and they were completed by his talented assistant Thomas Brock. Murphy’s assessment is that the O’Connell monument, ‘although making a clear visual reference to Catholic Emancipation, does not present a strident political image or impact in the centre of Dublin’. The Gough statue in Phoenix Park was more controversial; repeatedly bombed, it was moved to Northumberland in 1986.

Arguments arose in the 1890s over rival proposals to honour the nationalist hero Parnell and the English statesman William E. Gladstone (a memorial committee in England had commissioned statues for London, Edinburgh and Dublin). Feelings ran high and in 1898 the Dublin Corporation decreed that no statue of any Englishman should be erected ‘until at least the Irish people have raised a fitting monument to the memory of Charles Stewart Parnell’. John Hughes, Irish-born and working in Dublin, was backed by W. B. Yeats for the Parnell commission; but, as with the O’Connell monument, the committee chose a sculptor with an international reputation — Augustus Saint- Gaudens, who had lived and worked in America since childhood. Like Foley, he died before the memorial was completed.

Hughes, who became disillusioned at losing the Parnell commission, moved to Paris in 1903. He was nonetheless awarded the commission for a statue of Queen Victoria in 1905. Victoria was unveiled in 1908 in the protected precinct of Leinster House and thus escaped bombing. But when the Old IRA 4th Battalion declared in 1947 that the statues of Victoria and Nelson were ‘a spiritual affront to the Irish Nation’, the authorities took the hint and moved Victoria to a sculpture dump. She was later given to Sydney (Australia) on permanent loan. Nelson was less fortunate; his massive column could not easily be moved and he was blown up in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the 1916 uprising. Hughes also won the commission for Gladstone, but the Dublin authorities declined to accept the completed statue. In 1925 the memorial committee installed it at Hawarden in Cheshire (Gladstone’s former home), with the proviso that the statue should be returned to Dublin ‘if at some future date the political situation in Ireland makes it possible’.

Three works by Thomas Brock in Belfast — Queen Victoria, Sir Edward Harland and the Titanic Memorial .

Although ‘the politics of the street monument’ focused on Dublin, the book also describes (and illustrates) numerous works in the churches, museums and public squares of many other towns and cities, from Derry and Enniskillen in the north to Cork and Limerick in the south. Three works by Thomas Brock in Belfast — Queen Victoria, Sir Edward Harland and the Titanic Memorial — are mentioned, but not his memorial to Colonel James Galbraith in Clanabogan church, County Tyrone (1886). This is of topical interest because the marble relief depicts the last stand of the 66th Royal Berkshire Regiment at the disastrous battle of Maiwand in an earlier Afghan war.

The Greek Slave by Hiram Powers.

Since politics and religion so influences Irish sculpture in the nineteenth century, it may come as a surprise to read that an important issue at the 1853 Dublin Exhibition was the depiction of naked flesh. Although Victorian modesty ensured that portrait busts or statues (male and female) were appropriately dressed, all inhibitions were cast aside for ‘ideal’ works depicting subjects from antiquity. Foley’s Youth at the Stream and Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave attracted particular criticism, attributed by Paula Murphy to ‘a hidden prurience or an overt prudishness.’ According to the Exhibition catalogue, the Greek Slave, while beautifully modelled, was unsatisfactory as ‘a subject of contemplation to a tasteful mind’ in contrast to Patrick MacDowell’s Eve, whose nakedness was held to be ‘historically necessary’. The London-based Art Journal put such criticism in its place by identifying the debate as one between the educated and the uneducated, both in terms of demeanour and knowledge.

The book begins with a quotation from the Illustrated London News: ‘Let us do justice to Ireland in acknowledging that this art of sculpture, if not that of painting, has been proved to be one for which Irishmen have a decided native genius.’ Paula Murphy has in a masterly manner demonstrated the truth of this assertion.


Murphy, Paula. Nineteenth-Century Irish Sculpture: Native Genius Reaffirmed. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2010. ISBN 978-0-300-15909-7.

Last modified 13 August 2010