Rabble-rousing on O’Connell Street

Some time towards the end of last year I saw Tom Murphy’s “A Whistle in The Dark”, a DruidMurphy production staged as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. The story centred on an Irish emigrant, his English wife and the Irishman’s dysfunctional family, all of whom had come to stay and none of whom showed any signs of leaving. But “A Whistle in The Dark” wasn’t a family vignette. It was a magnifying glass hovering over a combustible situation and shining a spotlight of white heat. It was insidious like a family argument and by the end I wanted to stand up, walk in and tell everyone to just STOP.

I was thinking about “A Whistle In The Dark” recently as I walked down O’Connell Street. In one of Whistle’s many heated scenes, a family member trying to talk up Dublin exclaims, ‘O’Connell Street is the widest street in the world!’ That line provoked giggles from the audience and circled the family’s ignorance and insecurity with a thick felt pen.

Of course, O’Connell Street is not the widest street in the world; it’s the widest street in Ireland. I walk up O’Connell Street most week mornings, then down again that evening. My trip starts at Daniel O’Connell and ends at Charles Stewart Parnell. And between these two figures stands (amongst others), The Spire, Jesus in the box, and, my favourite, Big Jim Larkin.

(image via bangortobobbio.blogspot.com)

George Bernard Shaw famously described Jim Larkin as being the greatest Irishman since Charles Stewart Parnell. Sadly, if a statue’s appearances were a measure of greatness, then Parnell’s legacy would presumably be about as inspiring as a bowl of rice. What’s more, Parnell’s outstretched hand – historically a sign of excellent oratory skills – now looks slightly fascist, as though he were half attempting a Heil Hitler salute. It’s only a coincidence but it’s an unfortunate one all the same.

Jim Larkin however, erected some 68 years after Parnell in 1979, by Oisin Kelly, is a life-size bronze stationed on a 4.5 metre granite plinth. The statue, which is modelled on a photo of Larkin addressing a crowd on O’Connell Street in 1923, captures a variety of emotions: his wide-set stance and high-flung arms electrify him, as though he has reached the end of an invigorating and rabble-rousing speech. But the statue also has a sense of jubilance about it, as though some hundred years after the Dublin Lockouts (a century this August!), Larkin is celebrating a truly historical victory.

Oisin Kelly’s figurative statue was the second and last commemorative statue to be erected on O’Connell Street in the twentieth century, only preceded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Charles Stewart Parnell. But unlike Parnell, where each little detail from his pulled jacket buttons to the loosely hanging and creased trouser cuffs are delineated; these intricacies are virtually overlooked in Larkin’s case. Funnily however, the exclusion of these minutiae makes the statue’s impact more effective over all.

There’s a timeless maxim that goes, ‘show not tell’. Jim Larkin lacks any pernickety details, for example it’s difficult to attribute any kind of age to the figure or tease out the kind of shirt he might be wearing or whether his trousers have pockets. Yet the hollowed out apple-size hole for the mouth; the cut-away hollows-for-eyes, and the hands, which morph into jacket sleeves and evolve into a loose garment that flaps outwards and articulates a body in motion at the height of an electrifying speech are more significant and telling than any ruching of fabric or button detail.

Public art is about engaging people in a sense of ‘place’. In secondary school I often found history tedious because without modern resources like YouTube, the subject seemed depersonalised. Oisin Kelly’s Larkin however is provocative and reiterates the power a stationary object can have in unravelling great scenes from the past.

There is a plaque included on Larkin’s plinth, which reads: The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.” One hundred years later, that quote combined with Larkin’s gaping, howling mouth, still stands to remind workers to free themselves from the tyranny of their employers.