Running commentary - Frank McNally on the statues of Dublin’s Merrion Square

The southern and western sides lack any statues – moving or otherwise

As a lapsed running club member reduced to solitary slogs around the streets and parks of Dublin, I still occasionally attempt to replicate the interval training of old: doing short, high-intensity repeats at something like pace.

The rule used to be: run hard enough that conversation becomes impossible. And the second part of that goal, at least, is easier to achieve when you’re alone. But on a recent outing in Merrion Square, I also surprised myself by completing 12 x 400 metres at a speed inducive of oxygen debt.

Naturally, I cheated a bit. Starting from relative altitude at the park’s southwest corner – opposite Leinster House – I was on the right side of a gentle slope. Also useful was the left turn at the 250m mark, replicating the last band of a running track and psychologically propelling me towards the finish.

It helped too that, on a pleasant spring day, I was running towards the park’s bright end. Until a few years ago, Merrion Square was oppressed with overgrowth, making the paths dark and damp. Since the controlled tree massacre of 2015, light now floods the south and east quadrants, to uplifting effect.

Mind you, on the subject of running towards the light, I am always haunted while attempting sprints now by the thought that this might be the day on which I push my luck – and heart – too far.

No matter that sitting on a sofa watching television is probably a more dangerous activity. I often think of the great Noel Carroll, a majestic sight even in middle age when he used to run 400m repeats in Trinity Park, but who died while training at UCD in 1998.

On the other hand, it also helped that my 400m finish line coincided with Holles Street hospital, the scene of happier memories from that and later years. Not that I’m in any hurry to embrace mortality. But if it had to happen in a running session, I could hardly choose a better venue to pass on the relay baton of life than the place where my children were born.

***

When the day after that 400s session I received a reader’s email headed “Moving statues in Merrion Square”, my first thought was that it must be a satirical comment from an eye witness on my pretensions to athleticism.

In fact, the heading referred to a poem by Philip Cummings, who had sent it in response to a column about Jerome Connor (An Irishman’s Diary, February 16th). And it struck a chord for several reasons.

Connor’s sculpture of Éire had also coincided with my finish line, whereas it was the starting point for Philip’s statue-themed lap. Either way, as his jazz verse suggests, the sad figure hardly lends herself to athletic motivation:

“To my way of walking – and thinking – Éire (by O’Connor) comes first,

demure in grey granite, nipples erect despite the spring sunshine.

She has one arm draped forlornly over her muted harp,

her head resting on the other oversized, country crág

above a wrist a hurler would give his left arm for.

Eyelids hooded, she blankly stares at the goldened path in…

in what, exactly? Despair? Incomprehension? Exasperation?

From there, the poem proceeds to reflect on Michael Collins, Bernardo O’Higgins, Oscar Wilde, and the other statues on the park’s northern and eastern sides. Which I could probably have listed from memory having passed them all 12 times on my recovery jogs the day before.

But as I noticed then, and as Cummings notes with puzzlement in his poem, there are no statues – moving or otherwise – on the southern and western sides. Any comparison with ageing 400m runners, therefore, was mercifully unintended.

***

Lopsided as it is, the Merrion Square statue collection is also rather chaotic. As another reader has pointed out, however, there is an interesting connection between Wilde and Connor, which extends to Connor’s Robert Emmet sculpture in Stephen’s Green and its copies in the US.

The link, explains writer Frank Burns, was an extraordinary episode in Oscar Wilde’s US tour of 1882, when he visited the Mississippi home of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

They were an odd couple: the 27-year-old aesthete and the 74-year-old ex-statesman, still an unrepentant white supremacist. Wilde plámásed Davis shamelessly, linking the South’s “great cause” with Ireland’s struggle for freedom. Davis made excuses to go to bed early and later told his wife: “I did not like the man.”

But Wilde made a better impression on the women of the house, especially Davis’s winsome daughter Winnie, who turned 18 that day, and was enchanted with his comparisons between Ireland and the “beautiful, passionate, ruined, South”.

Born during the Civil War, she had become known as the “Daughter of the Confederacy”, as which her image was widely reproduced. She was also a budding writer. And when she wrote her first book in 1888, it was to be a romantic monograph on Emmet: An Irish Knight of the 19th Century.

Published to acclaim, especially among Irish-Americans, it fanned a renewed interest in its subject approaching his centenary: a fame that eventually led to Connor’s sculpture and its proliferation in Dublin, Washington, Ohio and San Francisco.

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