Call the Avant-Gardes – Frank McNally on drunken art models, legendary barmen, and 100 years of Finnegans Wake

Pedestal position

The abuse of Dublin’s Father Mathew statue, mentioned here Thursday, did not begin when it was placed on a pedestal in what is now O’Connell Street. As I’ve been reminded by reader Rita Larkin, it was also the subject of an assault even before it left the sculptor Mary Redmond’s studio.

One of the few women in her field back then, Redmond (1863-1930) had chosen as her model for the Apostle of Temperance an unemployed footman from Naas, Co Kildare. Unfortunately, as if to illustrate the challenges Father Mathew was up against in his life’s work, the man was an alcoholic. Difficult and unpunctual, he arrived at the studio one day in 1891, more plastered than the cast. And perhaps in part because her preliminary work was almost complete, Redmond saw fit to sack him.

But the “malicious wretch”, as a newspaper report of the time called him, later broke back into the studio, badly damaging his own likeness and attacking the artist too.

None of which turmoil was reflected in the finished piece. As one commentator said, its right hand “seems to beckon penitents, while the other is outstretched in a calming, arresting gesture”. Whether the model was the subject of arresting gestures, then or later, is unclear.

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As for the near-total destruction of the sculpture’s fingers in the decades since, a person of possible interest to the investigation has emerged in the form of Myles na gCopaleen, late of this newspaper. Here he is, writing about the statue in a Cruiskeen Lawn column of 1953: “Some years ago a group of irreverent students, in the days when ‘rags’ were tolerated, took note of the size and position of the outstretched declaiming hand and tried to put a pint tumbler in it.”

He declined to give any more detail of the prank. But he did add, cryptically, with the air of a man who might have been in the vicinity at the time: “And they very nearly succeeded.”

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Not being a regular of the establishment, I didn’t know Seán Kearney, a barman for 53 years at Grogan’s in South William Street, who died this week. But many of my readers did and remember him with great affection.

The combination of longevity and the respect of his customers earned him a distinction more normally reserved for saints: commemoration in a stained-glass window, thanks to an installation at the pub by artist Katherine Lamb.

Among those lamenting his demise on Twitter/X, meanwhile, was Dublin historian and podcaster Donal Fallon, who suggested Kearney must have been a contender for the city’s longest-serving barman.

Fallon added: “Like Paddy O’Brien before him, he was part of a tradition of skilled barmen who became synonymous with the institutions in which they worked.”

I didn’t know Paddy O’Brien either, of course. But as noted here before (Diary, April 2nd, 2020), in a column on Dublin pub mythology, he seems to have passed into legend in every sense.

Now as then, Grogan’s website still dates the pub’s history as a meeting place for Dublin’s “artistic avant-garde” to 1972.

That, it says, was the year “renowned barman Paddy O’Brien, formerly of McDaid’s pub, began working in Grogan’s bringing with him [...] the likes of poet Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, JP Donleavy, Liam O’Flaherty.”

And I’m sure they were there in spirit, all right. But whatever about being part of Dublin’s artistic avant garde in 1972, alas, Flann and Kavanagh were also members of the literary underground, having died in 1966 and ‘67 respectively.

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Another Dublin writing pub will also be the scene of a wake next week, albeit a fictional one, as it has been for a hundred years now. Yes, just when you thought the James Joyce centenaries were over for a while, a whole new cycle is upon us.

It is 100 years ago this month since the “Mamalujo” section of Finnegans Wake became the first part of that novel (then headlined “From Work in Progress”) to be published. Many other serialisations followed before the final work appeared. “Mamalujo” is a portmanteau of the names of the evangelists, hibernicised by Joyce as Matt Gregory, Marcus Lyons, Luke Tarpey, and Johnny MacDougall, who feature throughout.

And to mark the milestone on Tuesday, Joyceans will read that and other parts of the book in The Mullingar House, Chapelizod, scene of the Wake protagonists’ dream-filled sleep.

The invitation there reminds me again that my long-held ambition to read this famously difficult novel, although well advanced, has run into the sort of delays associated with underground rail projects.

My copy of the novel and of its mirror accompaniment, Roland McHugh’s Annotations, both lie open, face downwards, at page 476, and there has been no progress for a year now.

Finishing the project in time for next week’s event is clearly no longer feasible.

Still, with another big push soon, I’m confident I’ll have it polished off, finally, by the time this new series of centenaries ends in 2039.

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