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Hands of history – Frank McNally on the digital disenhancement of Fr Mathew

A chip off the old block

Among the latest acquisitions at the Little Museum of Dublin – now in temporary exile pending refurbishment of its Stephen’s Green headquarters – is a thumb of Father Mathew.

Not an actual relic, no. The earthly remains of Ireland’s Apostle of Temperance (1790-1856) still repose in their entirety, as far as I know, in a cemetery in Cork.

This is just a stone thumb, from the statue on O’Connell Street. But the story of its amputation is an amusing sub-plot in the social history of modern Ireland.

It happened back in July 1990, during the great homecoming reception for Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland soccer team after the heroics in Italy.

When the open-top bus from the airport crawled through dense crowds in the city centre, statues and trees were highly prized as vantage points.

The lapidary Father Mathew stood as usual with arms outstretched, as if still preaching about the evils of drink – as well he might have done during Italia 90, which had been a big setback for his life’s cause.

Down at street level, meanwhile, a lady watched some local youngsters clamber onto and about the statue’s person. One grabbed the thumb which broke off and fell to the ground.

So she picked it up and brought it home, meaning to return it to the Office of Public Works eventually. Instead, it spent the last 34 years as her souvenir of that time of national euphoria, before she finally donated it to the museum.

There must be a few similar mementoes on Dublin sideboards still, because when I took a stroll past him earlier this week, I noticed that poor Father Mathew has barely a single finger left intact.

Whether by Italia 90, Stephen Roche’s Tour de France, Barry McGuigan’s world title, or one of the other causes for mass gatherings on Dublin’s Main Street in the 1980s and 90s, he has been digitally disenhanced to the tune of about 90 per cent.

We can hardly blame his sculptor, Mary Redmond, for not foreseeing this risk back in 1893. But contrast the more modern, and cannier, statue of Big Jim Larkin nearby.

Even as it exhorts the poor of Dublin “let us rise”, its giant upraised hands are so far aloft as to be beyond the reach of anyone without specialist climbing equipment. Also, they’re made of metal.

So too, luckily, is the statue of Parnell, which seems to be directing traffic to turn left at the end of the street. Its outstretched right arm, capable of seating two or three street urchins in comfort, would long ago have gone the way of the Venus de Milo’s if it had been stone.

Parnell’s traffic policing role aside, the statues of O’Connell Street are like a straggling bus queue. They all face the same direction, standing at irregular distances, as if waiting for the 7a on O’Connell Bridge.

With his extravagant hand gestures, Father Mathew must once have looked as if he was complaining to the man immediately in front of him – Lord Nelson, as was – to close the gap on Larkin and the others before somebody cuts in.

As for the two at the top, William Smith O’Brien and John Gray, not only do they have a better chance of catching the bus when it finally turns up, they are also less likely to lose limbs while waiting.

Both are stone. But Gray’s right hand is clenched in a fist while his left is wrapped around a scroll. The even more sensible O’Brien, meanwhile, has his arms folded.

Exhibits at the Little Museum of Dublin also include a piece of what used be the Nelson statue, although which piece is debated. It’s certainly a chip off the old block, separated by the 1966 explosion or the resultant high-speed collision with O’Connell Street.

The curators prefer to believe it’s his nose. And there is support for this theory in the rest of the Nelson head, now residing in Pearse Street Library and clearly the victim of a rhinectomy.

I heard about the Father Mathew thumb on Saturday last, when attending one of the Little Museum’s final tours prior to the six-month shut-down.

The most exciting bit, personally, was when our very funny guide Emma mentioned the first two Dubliners to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and then, walking across the crowded room and grabbing me by the shoulders, said: “And here is the third.”

I’m not the first Irish Times writer to be wrongly told he has won a Nobel, although the last time it happened – to my former colleague John Banville – may have been somewhat more credible.

Still, I enjoyed the brief, deflected glory, before Emma revealed me to be standing in front of a portrait of the person she actually meant: Samuel Beckett.

Speaking of stand-ins, the Little Museum will relocate for it sabbatical to No 33 Pembroke Street, near Matt the Thresher’s restaurant. An exhibition has already opened there as the “History Factory and Pop-up Shop”.

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