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Culture, Sculpture, History and the Green

Irish patriot, Michael Collins, chaired a historic meeting in this room, and I had a wedding photo (not my wedding, I’m not that posh) taken in the same deluxe room.   The splendid, distinctive room is known as the Constitution Suite, one of the Shelbourne Hotel’s noteworthy suites.  In this room, the 1922 Irish constitution was drafted.  One cannot write about St. Stephen’s Green without mentioning the iconic, majestic, Shelbourne Hotel.  A draft of the Irish constitution (Bunreacht Na hÉireann) can be found in the Shelburne’s museum.  Worth viewing.

Well, let’s go for another ramble around St. Stephen’s Green Park, this lunch-hour.  Standing outside the Shelbourne Hotel, we walk up to the pedestrian crossing at the corner of Merrion Row.  Crossing over to the park opposite ,see the tall statue of Irish Republican, Theobold Wolfe Tone, dominating the centre of the capacious opening  outside the park, like a colossal sentinel guarding the entrance.  Sculptor, Edward Delaney, said as a retort for criticism of his ten foot figure: "Tone figured life-size in a park setting would look like a leprechaun."  Notice the lofty, slender, granite, Stonehenge-like monolith stonework surrounding the Tone figure in a semi-circular fashion.  Courtesy of some Dublin boyos, its nickname is ‘Tonehenge.’ 

The inclusion of the Tone sculpture ensured displacement of the original, granite entrance pillars; one now stands on the perimeter of St. Stephen’s Green East, up a piece from the Shelbourne opposite, and the other one is a good stone’s throw away on the North/East corner, highlighting the wide expanse between both structures.  During the height of the Troubles in the seventies, loyalists blew up the Wolfe Tone figure, with only his head surviving the blast.  Now it’s back to its former glorious best, thank God.   

Dubliner, Wolfe Tone, was born in 1763. This protestant son of a Bodenstown coach maker wrote political pamphlets on behalf of suppressed Catholics; was appointed assistant secretary to a reform body known as the Central Catholic Committee in 1792; became a principal member of the United Irishmen organisation, and is remembered throughout Ireland as the first true republican.  He once said: "To unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irishmen in order break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, that was my aim".

After the failed 1798 Rising, active participant Tone was captured and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for High Treason.  He requested to be shot like a soldier but was refused.  He committed suicide in response and cut his own throat; although, some commentators say he died from a throat wound after capture, which wasn’t self-inflicted.  This patriarch of Irish republicanism is commemorated each year in Bodenstown cemetery, County Kildare.

Now, let’s resume our ramble.  We enter the park through the gap at the end of the ‘Tonehenge’ stonework. Directly behind we discover another Edward Delaney, lost-wax cast bronze monument.  The Famine Memorial is an abstract creation with a modern expressionist style.  See the four stretched, skeletal figures, two standing and two sitting.  The malformed, malnourished-looking quartet represents famine victims, three humans and one dog.  The sad sculpture has one figure standing with an exaggerated lowered head and needing the aid of a stick.  Despite the figure’s distressing predicament, he holds a ladle of water to the mouth of an equally emaciated, sitting figure of a loved one; perhaps portraying selflessness in the face of adversity, revealing humanity despite starvation and subjugation.    The other less piteous figure stretches scrawny arms heavenwards, perhaps imploring Heavenly intercession.  The starved, bony dog lies there, demonstrating the unfaltering loyalty of its species.    We admire the memorable monument --definitely my favourite in the park.  Poignant.  Thought provoking.

The Great Famine (1845-1849) affected the whole of Ireland. The potato, the primary diet of ordinary Irish people, developed fungus growth and decayed in the earth.  Consequently, the country’s population plummeted from eight million to six million, one million suffered starvation and the other million emigrated.  In 1846,Lord John Russell’s Whig government pursued Laissez-Faire economic policies; therefore, worsening the crisis as the non-interference, ideological  dogma meant scarce food became expensive and the poor were allowed starve to death.  Famine Fever, a combination of Typhus and degenerating fever competed with scurvy and dysentery to further plague the Irish people.

Thousands of emigrants did not fare much better. They only managed to escape from a sickly inferno to an unimaginable hell.   Unscrupulous ship owners, whilst prioritizing profit, failed to provide enough nourishment and water for the three-month- long, exhaustive, torturous journey to North America.  These migrant ships were called ‘Coffin Ships’.   Afflicted with debilitating diseases and malnutrition, unable to tolerate being crushed like sardines in jam-packed, sickness-saturated ships, the tragic,’ Coffin Ship’ victims soon became food for sharks.  Miraculously, hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants survived the many arduous journeys and found a better life.

On June 2nd 1997, British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave an unprecedented apology for the Great Hunger.  He stated: “The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people."   Welcomed words.

Anyway, enough politics for one day, we continue our walk.  The weather looks OK, at least it’s dry; a crisp day with a lot of white clouds and a kind of filtered sunshine managing to sneak through in some places.  The centre of the park soon greets us.  Fragrant flowers, from the many colourful flowerbeds, supplement the freshness of the day and tantalize our nostrils.  We observe that the two, circular granite water fountains have plenty of company with cheering children and some adults sitting on the ogee-shaped, curved sides, with some others photographing the spraying, sprinkling water jet.  The park is always full of life, and its proportioned Victorian layout hasn’t changed much over time.

Soon, we find ourselves at the vast, extensive lake.  A bench provides a welcome resting place.  With my well-thawed out packet of frozen peas, I feed the ducks.  Peas are a healthier alternative (and fun to fling) than less nutritious bread for waterfowl.  This particular spot, at the lake, reminds me of a very funny excerpt from comedian Mike Murphy’s candid camera show.  Would a duck shooter, equipped with a shotgun and whistle, enter a public park and proceed to shoot ducks?  Mike tried. Google http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIVyxKHgfgU. And watch Mike’s comical antics as a duck shooter.  Hilarious.

Lunch over, we head outside.  Hope you enjoyed.  Have a nice day.

Tomas O’hArgadain.

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