John Dolan: From Fr Mathew to boxer Doyle, casting flawed heroes in stone can easily set you up for a fall

Statues can cause problems when times and attitudes change or when history shifts on its axis, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: From Fr Mathew to boxer Doyle, casting flawed heroes in stone can easily set you up for a fall
Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, in memory of George Floyd who was killed on May 25 while in police custody in the US city of Minneapolis. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

IN the summer of 1985, Cork was at the epicentre of the curious ‘Moving Statues’ phenomenon.

Crowds flocked to shrines such as Ballinspittle to catch a glimpse of the Virgin Mary coming to life — or failing that, to at least flog a few ice-creams to the hordes of pilgrims.

Thirty-five years on, and many of us were transfixed by another ‘Moving Statue’ phenomenon last weekend — when a baying mob pulled down the effigy of a slave trader in the English city of Bristol and hurled it into a river.

After 125 years being dumped on by the birds, Edward Colston will now be dumped on, presumably for eternity, by the fishes. Given he made his fortune transporting Africans across the Atlantic to America, into a life of servitude, there is a poetic justice in that fate.

The statue protest, part of the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the globe since the death of George Floyd in the U.S, was met with almost universal acclaim.

Indeed, it could be argued this was one of those occasions where the people were one step ahead of the politicians and officials.

Calls to take down the statue of Colston had been ignored for years, even though the case for the defence was as shaky as the statue itself — that the 17th century merchant used his ill-gotten gains to fund philanthropy.

The statue of slave trader Edward Colston being removed from the Bristol Harbour, where it was dumped by protesters during anti-racism demonstrations last weekend. Picture: Bristol City Council/PA Wire
The statue of slave trader Edward Colston being removed from the Bristol Harbour, where it was dumped by protesters during anti-racism demonstrations last weekend. Picture: Bristol City Council/PA Wire

However, the stunt did leave me queasy on a few levels. Wasn’t this vandalism of public property? Where were the police? Is mob rule really desirable at a time when folk are restless from the lockdown and demonstrators can wear a mask to hide their identity?

And, more worryingly, buoyed by the acclaim, might the protesters move on to another target — one that is not so cut and dried?

What if they next try to destroy a statue of Winston Churchill, citing his outdated, Victorian views on race? Such a move would be incendiary in the UK and far from universally acclaimed.

No — as understandable as the decision was to toss Colston to a watery grave, I fear the protesters are on a slippery slope here.

There can barely be a person represented in statue form, either in the UK or Ireland for that matter, who has lived a pristine life. And projecting our modern values onto them is surely doing them — and us — a disservice.

In erecting a statue, we are usually memorialising an aspect of that person’s life, not saying we agree with everything they ever said and did.

It can be a thorny issue. There has been an outcry over plans to erect a statue of famous boxer Jack Doyle in his home town of Cobh because of allegations of domestic violence by him.

Approval for it was only passed narrowly by Cork County Council after much debate, and you suspect the issue will be re-inflamed when the statue is eventually unveiled.

Then there is Cork city’s most famous statue, that of Fr Mathew, which has stood sentinel on Patrick Street since 1864.

The Apostle of Temperance’s latter years were dogged by a controversy which will be of particular interest to those in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Father Mathew on Patrick Street.
Father Mathew on Patrick Street.

Fr Mathew had been among 60,000 people, including Daniel O’Connell, who signed a petition in 1841 urging the Irish in the U.S not to partake in slavery.

However, on a later visit to the States, he betrayed this cause when he came under the influence of people who opposed abolition, including slavers themselves and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York.

Rather than using his platform to speak out against slavery, Fr Mathew kept quiet, and even went as far as to state there was nothing in the scripture that prohibited it.

For this, he was roundly condemned, and his old black friend, ex-American slave and frequent Cork visitor, Frederick Douglass, turned on him in disgust, saying: “We are grieved, humbled and mortified. We had fondly hoped he would not change his morality by changing his location.”

Should Fr Mathew’s statue be torn down and hurled into the Lee for this transgression, or should we instead remember his lifelong dedication to the teetotal cause, which assuredly helped many poor people live better lives?

It’s worth bearing in mind that a statue is much more than a mere work of art in people’s mindsets. We can see paintings of Hitler, or Nazi concentration camps, and not be offended — but a statue confers approval; worship, even.

The Fr Mathew effigy is a case in point. When it was unveiled, thousands lined the streets and shops and businesses closed, at a time when Catholicism was at its zenith in Ireland.

It long ago became part of the street furniture, part of the fabric of the city; a meeting place, a familiar face. The idea of dismantling the statue because he once showed weakness instead of condemning slavery, or because of the abuse of later clergy, is unthinkable.

Twenty years ago, a proposal to move it to Winthrop Street, in a £10million makeover of the city, was met with anger by citizens.

It prompted a call to arms by Jo Kerrigan, who wrote in the Examiner: “Get hold of your locally elected councillors and tell them if Father Mathew moves one inch, they can whistle for your vote at the next election.”

Historian John A. Murphy once summed up the statue’s place in the city’s heritage. “You can have an attachment to the statue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean an attachment to the man,” he said,

Prof Murphy regaled Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Cork in 2011 with the story of how a statue of her predecessor Victoria stood at UCC for almost a century until 1935, when it was removed and buried. It is now enjoying a new lease of life in the Tyndall Institute, no longer ruling over us, more a nod to the college’s heritage — UCC was originally called Queen’s College after Victoria.

Statues can cause problems when times and attitudes change or when history shifts on its axis.

Witness the demise of the statue of King George II on horseback on Grand Parade in 1862, shoved from his plinth by persons unknown — or the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966.

I imagine plenty of Irish people would like to blow up the few statues of Oliver Cromwell dotted around England, one of which, for reasons I have never really comprehended, has stood in my home town of Warrington since 1899. Even then, the town’s plentiful Irish population objected.

Since the tyrant cut off the English monarch’s head, a blanket is thrown over the statue whenever a royal visits my town! I imagine the Irish would prefer the blanket was made permanent.

Around the same time, a statue of Cromwell was erected outside Parliament in London, and Cork city born Nationalist MP Justin McCarthy complained: “Every fibre in his heart throbbed against tho Irish people — every fibre in the Irish national heart throbbed against his memory.”

There may come a day when statues of Cromwell in England are hurled into the nearest river — but that is a job for English hands; not Irish ones.

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