‘An inspiration to all who gaze upon it’

Published in 1913, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Volume 21

The famous photograph of James Larkin that inspired the monument, taken by Joe Cashman in April 1923. Biographer Emmet O’Connor has observed that the less-than-animated response of the O’Connell Street crowd ‘speaks volumes about the difference between 1913 and 1923, and Larkin’s inability to see this’. (RTÉ Stills Library)

The famous photograph of James Larkin that inspired the monument, taken by Joe Cashman in April 1923. Biographer Emmet O’Connor has observed that the less-than-animated response of the O’Connell Street crowd ‘speaks volumes about the difference between 1913 and 1923, and Larkin’s inability to see this’. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Speaking at the golden jubilee meeting of the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI) in September 1974, historian F.X. Martin supported the union’s attempt to have a monument erected on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in memory of James Larkin, the WUI’s inaugural general secretary from 1924 to 1947:

‘This burly, brass-throated orator with the magnificent frame which helped him, a magnificent face too, ideally made for sculpture, became a boisterous, fearless prophet of the gospel of social justice . . . There should be erected a monument to Jim Larkin, which he deserves. It should be of bronze, because bronze is the most imperishable, and Jim Larkin was imperishable and, I think, will always be in the history of Ireland.’

At this stage the WUI, while yet to commission an artist for the project, had already decided that the monument should depict the iconic photograph of Larkin taken by Dublin freelance photographer Joe Cashman shortly after Larkin’s return to Ireland from America in 1923. Although one finds it hard not to accept the view of Emmet O’Connor, Larkin’s most recent and critical biographer, that the less-than-animated response of the O’Connell Street crowd in the famous photograph ‘speaks volumes about the difference between 1913 and 1923, and Larkin’s inability to see this’, Cashman’s snapshot—perfectly capturing Larkin’s towering stature and powerful oratorical style—was the obvious image of Larkin to be replicated in bronze. According to O’Connor, the photograph forcefully brings to life the notion that the oppressed workers of Dublin were Larkin’s ‘audience and his plinth’.

Delays with the project

The Larkin monument today, with the Spire in the background.

The Larkin monument today, with the Spire in the background.

Having received planning permission for the monument from Dublin Corporation in November 1974, the WUI later announced that Dublin sculptor Oisín Kelly (1915–81) had been commissioned to bring their vision to reality. One of the most versatile figures in twentieth-century Irish sculpture, Kelly had earlier risen to prominence when commissioned to design The Children of Lir for Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, which was unveiled in April 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. After constructing the Larkin statue in the backyard of his house in Firhouse in late 1976, Kelly sent the figure to the Dublin Art Foundry to be cast into bronze by John Behan. By summer 1977 the statue had been completed, yet problems obtaining suitable granite for the monument’s large and sturdy base led to lengthy delays, and it was not until 12 June 1979 that the plinth was finally ready to accommodate Larkin’s arrival. Three days later a crowd of several hundred spectators and invited guests attended the official unveiling by President Patrick Hillery, who praised Larkin for his lifelong ‘assaults on oppression and exploitation’ and expressed a hope that the monument would stand as ‘an inspiration to all who gaze upon it to strive on behalf of their brothers everywhere’.

Forever freezing in time the fire of Larkin’s oratory, the quality of Kelly’s sculpture deserves recognition. As Ulick O’Connor recently remarked, the statue so perfectly captures the great orator in full flight ‘that one can almost imagine a memorable Larkinism issuing from the bronze lips’. The enormous limbs and thick hands of Kelly’s statue give it great strength, while Larkin’s flowing, rippling coat also lends it an air of vitality and movement. The location of the monument—on Lower O’Connell Street, facing south, between Prince’s Street and Cleary’s retail store—is pointedly ironic. It was on the same spot, on 31 August 1913, that the ‘Bloody Sunday’ riot took place following Larkin’s infamous speech from a balcony of the William Martin Murphy-owned Imperial Hotel (now Cleary’s).

Inscriptions

Having successfully received planning permission for the monument from Dublin Corporation in November 1974, the Workers’ Union of Ireland later announced that Dublin sculptor Oisín Kelly (1915–81) had been commissioned to bring their vision to reality. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Having successfully received planning permission for the monument from Dublin Corporation in November 1974, the Workers’ Union of Ireland later announced that Dublin sculptor Oisín Kelly (1915–81) had been commissioned to bring their vision to reality. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Three inscriptions are engraved on the granite plinth upon which Larkin’s statue stands. On the base is written the famous slogan that James Connolly opted to use above the 1896 manifesto of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, as well as beneath the masthead of his Workers’ Republic newspaper:

‘The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!’

This slogan, which Larkin was fond of including in his speeches, is usually attributed to French revolutionary Camille Desmoulins (1760–94). It appears in French and Irish as well as English on the base of the plinth. On the east side of the monument is a quotation from playwright Seán O’Casey, taken from his autobiographical volume Drums under the windows:

‘He talked to the workers, spoke as only Jim Larkin could speak, not for an assignation with peace, dark obedience, or placid resignation, but trumpet-tongued of resistance to wrong, discontent with leering poverty, and defiance of any power strutting out to stand in the way of their march onward.’

O’Casey was a lifelong friend and admirer of Larkin, whom he viewed as a titanic figure sent by God to help lift the ‘work-worn people’ of Ireland up from their pitiful state. On the west side of the monument is a quotation taken from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Jim Larkin’:

‘And Tyranny trampled them in
Dublin’s gutter
Until Jim Larkin came along and cried
The call of Freedom and the call of
Pride
And slavery crept to its hands and
knees
And Nineteen Thirteen cheered from
out the utter
Degradation of their miseries.’

Kavanagh’s poem had first been published in Peadar O’Donnell’s literary magazine The Bell in March 1947. During this period The Bell also regularly published short stories by Strumpet city author James Plunkett. On 15 June 1979 the Dublin author was among the specially invited guests at the unveiling of Larkin’s monument. Despite President Hillery’s comment that Larkin might have ‘directed harsh words at our commemorating him in granite and in bronze’, Plunkett’s feeling was that he looked ‘entirely at ease and in place’ alongside the other O’Connell Street monuments.

Although since corrected, the year of Larkin’s birth was initially engraved on the plinth as 1876, two years after he had actually been born, a fact not realised until historian C. Desmond Greaves discovered Larkin’s Liverpool birth certificate in 1980. This was the same year that RTÉ premiered their award-winning television adaptation of Strumpet city, starring Peter O’Toole, Cyril Cusack and David Kelly, among others. Filming for the seven-part series had taken place in the summer of 1979. When the time came to shoot the O’Connell Street ‘Bloody Sunday’ riot scene, the recently erected Larkin monument caused a headache for the crew’s cameramen by repeatedly creeping into shot. As Plunkett later remarked wryly, ‘Larkin would have liked that’. HI

James Curry is a Digital Humanities Doctoral Scholar at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and author of Artist of the Revolution. The cartoons of Ernest Kavanagh (Cork, 2012).

 

 

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