Irish Sculpture since 1600

The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.

Introduction: The Narrative by Paula Murphy

The term sculpture has traditionally suggested a figurative object made in a lasting material (marble or bronze) in three-dimensional or relief format. John Henry Foley’s (qv) monument to Daniel O’Connell [2] in the centre of Dublin is a typical example, with its many bronze figures in the round and in relief. If this was the norm in sculpture for centuries, in Ireland and elsewhere, the tradition was not sustained into the twenty-first century. By the late 1900s, with new developments in the art form, it had become less easy to ascertain what was a piece of sculpture. As Declan McGonagle has written, ‘the definition of sculpture had been expanded to the point where it could now be anything and do anything’ (Breaking the Mould, British Art of the 1980s and 1990s, London and Dublin, 1997, p. 10). 

John Henry Foley, Monument to Daniel O’Connell, 1867-82, O’Connell Street, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography.

Between the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the twenty-first century, Irish sculpture emerged from a primitive form of expression to proceed through several hundred years of traditional carving and modelling, only to deconstruct itself, almost beyond recognition, in the late twentieth century. By the year 2000 remarkable developments had taken place in the practice of sculpture, driven initially by form and its expression in non-figurative work. Ultimately, however, materials were to dictate the emergence of sculptural processes that could appear to be entirely disconnected from what had prevailed since the ancient world, and the term ‘sculpture’ became effectively indefinable. Volume and mass, long associated with sculptural work, could no longer be an expectation; the reality of sculpture taking the form of an object in space was also overturned; and the typical application of craft to the process of making sculpture had been called into question. This is not to suggest that all sculptural works made since the late twentieth century conform to the new practices. Traditional sculptures continued to be produced and remain conspicuous in the sphere of public art aspiring to accessibility.

The parameters of the disparity are exemplified in the carving of an altar tomb by the O’Kerin brothers in 1604 and the ready-made Ghost Ship by Dorothy Cross (qqv) [3] in 1999. The former – a commemorative monument dedicated to the Comerford family in St Mary’s, Callan, Co. Kilkenny [4] – is a functional work, richly decorated with relief depictions of symbolic details from what Ada K. Longfield refers to as the ‘Heraldry of Christ’ (Some Irish Churchyard Sculpture, 1974, p. 3). The latter – an art for art’s sake public art commission for Dublin, which was inspired by the manned lightships that had sailed around the Irish coast – was a site-specific, time-based installation. The work involved sculptural processes, materials and methods of display that were still relatively novel in Ireland at the time. John Gibbons’s (qv) definition of sculpture as something that cannot be contained within the object itself, but ‘takes place between the viewer and the object’ (interviewed by Vera Ryan, 0044, Cork, 1999, p. 65), seems to encapsulate what was the experience of encountering the ghostly presence of Cross’s lightship in the waters off Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Although both the altar tomb and the Ghost Ship were public sculptures and objects in space, the former was a permanent piece, which remains in situ, while the latter, in place for less than a month and visible only for brief periods at night, was not only short-lived, but was seen by relatively few people. 

Dorothy Cross, Ghost Ship, Installation in Dublin Bay, 1999. © Dorothy Cross, courtesy Kerlin Gallery.
Walter and Patrick O’Kerin, Tomb of the Comerford Family, 1604, Collection of St Mary’s Church, Callan, Co. Kilkenny. © Patrick Comerford.

If Irish sculpture appeared to have caught up with its international counterparts by the end of the twentieth century, it was nonetheless the case that the major stylistic developments that had taken place over the centuries were often slow to manifest themselves in Ireland and occasionally did not materialize at all. The small island at the edge of Europe, even with the advent of enhanced communications and transport, remained isolated. This is particularly noted in the first half of the 1900s, when the avant-garde seemed to have little impact in sculptural developments in the country. The protracted introduction of Modernism into Ireland was the result of multiple interrelated factors – geographical, ideological and political. With the advent of Independence in 1921, the island nation, naturally conservative and deeply suspicious of modernity, coming to terms with its new freedom and its attendant commitment to Irishness, did not readily make overtures to new or experimental ideas. ‘The fear of being subsumed or of our culture being diluted’ (Alice Maher (qv) in Judith Higgins, ‘Art from the Edge’, Art in America, December 1995, 37), meant that new artistic practices found little purchase in Ireland. There is no evidence in Irish sculpture in the early decades of the twentieth century of the impact of Tribal Art, which had such a profound influence in developing Modernism in Europe. Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism remained absent; there were noticeably late manifestations of Abstract, Pop and Kinetic work; and later sculptural processes, such as Land Art, are scarcely seen in Ireland. 

In spite of its inherently public nature, sculpture has been considered the most neglected of the art forms. Occasional reference to sculpture as the ‘Cinderella’ of the arts (Parkinson and Simmonds, 1866, p. 474) usually implies a form of mistreatment – such as being poorly displayed or insufficiently funded. Rupert Gunnis makes reference to the neglect of sculpture in the introduction to his landmark Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660–1851, first published in 1951 and including many Irish sculptors, and also to its lack of popular appeal. Located in streets and parks, museums and churches, sculptural work seems to assume a certain invisibility. There is no doubt that the majority of visitors to museums largely favour viewing paintings, with which they are more familiar and more at ease. Josephine Ada, in an essay on Thomas Kirk (qv), commented, seemingly pragmatically, on the reasons for the popularity of painting over sculpture, noting that ‘besides the greater expensiveness of Sculpture, the effect of Painting is more comprehensible and direct’ (‘Kirk’s Study’, Bolster’s Quarterly Magazine, II, 1827 (Cork, 1828), 263). In outdoor public spaces, preoccupied with the minutiae of quotidian life, the public fails to notice the coexistence of artworks. This has not always been the case. Before the advent of multiple, mostly electronic, distractions in the late twentieth century, the public engaged more with their surroundings and took the trouble to be involved with and to form opinions about public monuments. Maintaining a watching brief over what was erected, people were ready to publicize their thoughts in newspapers and journals at the time.

Public sculpture invites comment. It is preferable that it would inspire even negative criticism, rather than that it would be ignored. Inherently controversial, the subject matter, the aesthetic merit or even the location of a particular work can be contentious. Eminent English sculptor Grinling Gibbons’s equestrian portrait of William III [5], which stood in College Green, Dublin, for more than 200 years, can probably lay claim to having been the most vigorously disputed statue ever put in place in Ireland. Erected in 1701 to commemorate William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne, the monument served as a regular focus for political manifestations. Over two centuries, before and after Loyalist celebrations at the foot of the statue, nationalist groups did their utmost to damage or destroy the work. The Gibbons sculpture was a constant target until, in 1928, in the aftermath of yet another attempt to blow it up, the statue was removed from its pedestal for inspection. Given the new political circumstances that prevailed in the country by that time, the decision was taken to decommission the statue and put it in storage. The war on statues that was widespread in Ireland in the twentieth century witnessed the destruction of many of the imperial monuments that had been erected in the previous two centuries. Equestrian monuments, statues of lords lieutenant, the Nelson Pillar in Dublin and more were blown up or dismantled.

Grinling Gibbons, William III, 1701 (formerly College Green, Dublin). © National Library of Ireland.

While sculpture has been the butt of political protest over time, it has also suffered from insufficient funding. In earlier centuries there are reports of designs being scaled back owing to lack of funds. Simple portrait statues were often intended to be accompanied by other features, notably fountains – such as was the case with Thomas Farrell’s (qv) statue of Sir John Gray (1879) in O’Connell Street, Dublin. Later, in the twentieth century, inadequate funding has occasionally resulted in poor or paltry sculptural work being sited. This is most evident in sculpture created by way of the Per Cent for Art Scheme – a funding process that was established in 1986 to ensure that one percent of the construction costs of building projects was used for the purpose of incorporating an art element. Some of the resulting sculptures created for motorways, bypasses and roundabouts lack presence, while others are made out of inadequate materials. The proliferation of sculpted animals that have appeared in public spaces – among the most enduring of which are a ram (Dick Joynt) [163], horses (Michael Quane) [266], birds (Colm Brennan) [41] (qqv), salmon (Jarlath Daly) and even a great Irish elk (Kevin Holland) – suggests a hankering after a distant past and more primitive environment where animals roamed freely! Remco de Fouw and Rachel Joynt’s Perpetual Motion, 1996 [6], at the edge of the motorway in Naas, Co. Kildare, and Richard Enda King’s (qqv) Spirit of the Air, 1989 [175], at Dublin Airport, show more contemporary concerns. Taking inspiration from their location and fashioned out of more functional materials, cement and concrete respectively, these works reject the preciousness associated with marble and bronze. Among the most successful of the many millennium pieces commissioned for Dublin in 1988, Grace Weir’s (qv) architectural Trace (see Weir’s Arch, [489]) situated on an expanse of pavement at St Stephen’s Green, invites pedestrians to pass through the arches, recognizing – what is an often overlooked element in relation to public art – that the viewer is inevitably in motion.

Various bodies have been involved in the process of public sculpture in Ireland over time, from the RDS and the RHA in earlier centuries to the SSI (qv) (1981, later Visual Artists Ireland) and the National Sculpture Factory (qv) (1992) in Cork in the late twentieth century. Endlessly controversial, the commissioning, funding and locating of the work, and its scale, permanence and maintenance have always been problematic. The choice of sculptor is also an issue. Sculptors for public art commissions are usually selected by competition (qv), open or limited, a process that is considered democratic, if not universally popular. The process is often rushed, with insufficient time allowed for carrying out the initial maquettes, let alone the finished work. Inadequate time and money result in either poor quality work or the commission running over time and over budget.

Public sculpture, in previous centuries, was usually commemorative (portraits) or functional (fountains), both of which still pertain in the twenty-first century. Sculpture in the great outdoors has usually benefited from the availability of both space and all-over lighting. While the circumstances may have deteriorated radically for statues that now find themselves located in what have become busy cities and towns, and their presence has been diminished by pervasive signage and traffic lights and the relentless movement of vehicles, large and small, old engravings and photographs reveal that the original circumstances of their display were spacious and unencumbered. However, sculptural work shown indoors, particularly at exhibitions (qv), was and remains at the mercy of the curator and the site. Cramped spaces, poor lighting and shabby display were regularly encountered at the RHA and at other traditional exhibition venues well into the twentieth century – none of which could be deemed to encourage patronage. It was perhaps inevitable therefore that, towards the end of the century, sculptors would seek to exhibit their work out-of-doors. The first OASIS (Open Air Show of Irish Sculpture) in Merrion Square, Dublin, in 1975, created the opportunity for sculptors to work on a large scale and for that work to be viewed by would-be patrons in a natural setting.

Rachel Joynt and Remco de Fouw, Perpetual Motion, 1996, Naas By-Pass, Co. Kildare, Collection: Kildare County Council. © Rachel Joynt & Remco de Fouw.

Private and public patronage for sculpture in Ireland has been intermittent (see ‘Collecting Sculpture: Private’ and ‘Collecting Sculpture: Public’). Issues of scale, display and cost prevail, resulting in a substantially greater purchase of paintings. Availability, or its lack, is also a consideration, because sculpture, slower and more expensive to produce, is less abundant than its sister art form. Museums/galleries, institutional buildings and private houses have far fewer sculptures than paintings. Three-dimensional artworks – to be seen in the round – have very particular display requirements. Private collectors commission and/or purchase memorial sculpture (church and cemetery), portrait and ideal work. Public patronage, where direct commissioning is involved, comprises monumental commemorative sculpture, often in the form of portrait statues, and subject pieces and abstract work. Museum collections, since they were established in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, have been relatively backward in the purchase of sculpture. For example, there has been little concentration on 3D work in the collecting policy of the National Gallery of Ireland since its inception, and the casts of antique sculptures, acquired in large numbers in the early years of the gallery and forming the bulk of the sculpture exhibits there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are no longer extant. It is still largely the case that the focus of attention in the main art galleries throughout Ireland is on painting, which is easier to display, handle, move, store and, purportedly, view.

If the galleries generally have exercised more caution with or even shied away from exhibitions of sculpture, this has not been the case with IMMA. The museum in its early years made regular use of the Weltkunst collection of British sculpture and sculptors’ drawings of the 1980s and 1990s, which was given on long loan in 1994. Some of the most memorable exhibitions in IMMA have involved sculpture, most notably the work of English sculptor Antony Gormley (Antony Gormley: Sculpture) in 1994, which included Gormley’s haunting Field for the British Isles [7) – with its 40,000 terracotta figurines filling one of the museum’s long corridors. Encouraging people to travel to the city for the exhibition, the Irish Farmers’ Journal recommended it to readers as being ‘well worth a visit’ (23 April 1994). Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz’s Conversation Piece followed almost immediately. His series of oddly deformed, but engaging, figure shapes, made in resin, sand and cloth, gathered in informal groups in IMMA’s inner courtyard, for which they appeared to have been made specifically. They suited the space so perfectly that sculpture and architecture combined to form an installation. Four years later The Children’s Hospital [8] was installed (a section of which remains part of the permanent collection) on the upper floor of the gallery. The work of Russian-Americans Ilya and Emilia Kabakov was exactly what the title suggested, with all the trappings of a children’s hospital ward, including individual miniature theatre stages by each bed for the purposes of distracting the patient. However, the beds were empty, the sick children were not there and only the viewer was present, wandering from one curtained cubicle to another, occasionally making use of a visitor’s chair to sit by a bedside and inevitably become part of the artwork. The relationship between the viewer and the viewed had altered in the late twentieth century, with the former no longer remaining an outsider looking in, but instead experiencing the artwork from within.

Antony Gormley, Field For The British Isles, 1993, Terracotta, Irish Times, 12 April 1994. © Joe St Leger.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Children’s Hospital, detail of the installation at IMMA in 1998, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art. © Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Patronage for portrait work has been a constant over the centuries, particularly in bust form. Thomas Farrell acknowledged that it was the bust portrait that kept ‘the sculptor’s art from being extinguished in Ireland’, while also recognizing that this was to the detriment of ‘poetic or imaginative sculpture’ (Father Reffé Memorial Booklet, 1896). While sculptors may have preferred to work on subject pieces, which allowed for more creative freedom, it was the continuing demand for portraits which tended to finance the running of a workshop. Uncommissioned portrait work was rarely undertaken except in the case of members of the sculptor’s family and famous figures (the latter usually replicated in multiples), whereas examples of ideal sculpture in plaster form were regularly displayed, both in the studio and at exhibitions, with the purpose of attracting patronage. Few such plaster sculptures, many of which were never transferred to stone or bronze, remain extant. If portrait work sustained the profession in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there continued to be a demand in the newly independent Ireland for portraits – particularly of the heroes of 1916 and other significant individuals in the gaining of Irish freedom. Occasionally these were heroic portraits of colossal stature, such as Laurence Campbell’s half figure image of Seán Heuston (limestone, 1943, Phoenix Park) [65] and Séamus Murphy’s bust of Michael Collins (bronze, 1948, Fitzgerald Park, Cork) [9]. However by this time the church was also recognized as an important patron of sculptors, with much demand for ecclesiastical sculpture (qv) keeping the studios busy. Imogen Stuart (qv) has commented on the extent of church patronage in the twentieth century and acknowledged the place it had in the development of her own career (Brian Fallon, Imogen Stuart, Dublin, 2002, p. 28).

Séamus Murphy, Michael Collins, 1984, Fitzgerald Park, Cork. © Paula Murphy.

That Ireland was colonized for much of the period under consideration played a significant role on the influences that pertained in Irish sculpture. The close relationship with England, in particular, resulted in Ireland acquiring work by English sculptors and by foreigners who were practising there, and many Irish sculptors made their way to London to train and to establish their studios. London, an important centre of art, was a draw for Irish artists at a time when Dublin, in spite of being the second metropolis of the British Empire, was something of a backwater. In 1885 Sir Thomas Jones, president of the RHA, advised graduating artists to leave Ireland for London if they had ‘higher aspirations’ than mere ‘local reputation’ (IB, 1 May 1885). This toing and froing between Britain and Ireland has remained a constant. If many of Ireland’s best sculptors were ‘absentee artists’ in earlier centuries – John Henry Foley and Patrick MacDowell (qv) were among the most noted in the nineteenth century – this continued to be the case in the twentieth century with, for example, John Gibbons and Eilís O’Connell (qqv) both based in England, and in the twenty-first century Eva Rothschild in London and Cathy Wilkes (see ‘Irish Sculpture at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’) in Glasgow.

London was not the only city to attract Irish sculptors. Rome, Paris and eventually New York would also compete for their attention. Christopher Hewetson and John Hogan (qqv) were notable exiles to Rome in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively, both establishing themselves there to such an extent that they came to be well-respected sculptors in the city. When, in the late 1800s, Paris became the centre of exciting new developments in art, contemporaries John Hughes, Oliver Sheppard and Mervyn Lawrence (qqv) spent time studying there. Only Sheppard eventually settled in Ireland; Lawrence took up residence in England and Hughes returned later to live in France. By the mid-twentieth century New York, rather than Paris, had become a nucleus for developing modern styles, and the city became the chosen destination for many Irish artists. In the latter part of the twentieth century Grace Weir, Liadin Cooke and John Kindness (qqv), among others, were afforded the opportunity to travel there by way of a fellowship at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center. And, continuing the Irish tradition of ‘absentee artists’, in 2004 Corban Walker (qv) chose to leave Ireland to live and work in New York.

These relationships with other countries have been particularly influential in developments in Irish sculpture, in tandem with elements that derive from colonialism, nationalism and insularity – all of which suggests the need to question the presence or absence of any form of Irishness in the work that has been produced in the country or by Irish practitioners abroad. It is largely the case that manifestations of a national style of sculpture remain absent, whereas there is abundant evidence of Irish subject matter – historical and mythological, religious and commemorative. The national monument commemorating Daniel O’Connell, which remains the finest public sculpture in the country, exemplifies this dichotomy between style and content. It is replete with Irish symbolism in the form of not just the portrait of such a central individual in the narrative of Irish history, but more particularly in the presence of the allegorical figure of Erin [405] accompanied by her characteristic attributes. Yet the style of the work is no more Irish than the bronze in which the statues were cast in London. The monument is redolent of compositional details and figure types that are found in contemporary European counterparts with which Foley was familiar (see Murphy, 2010, chapter 8).

The O’Connell monument was intended to be the outcome of a collaboration between a sculptor and an architect, but Foley, who made only a half-hearted attempt at this, preferred to have sole responsibility for the work. Nonetheless, the notion of such a collaboration was not unusual at the time, and a close relationship had endured between sculpture and architecture for centuries, usually with the former employed to enrich the latter. While the architectural Orders were designated by way of sculpted motifs, even more significantly, buildings were completed by the sculptural work positioned on the roofline, filling niches in the façades and/or located in the pediment. Architectural spaces, especially streets, seemed deficient in the absence of effigies, and gardens and parks lacked character without specifically sited sculptures. In the twenty-first century the public spaces continue to serve as receptacles for sculptures – sometimes of a different kind. However, architecture, which in its mid-twentieth century modernist expression (Ronnie Tallon’s Bank of Ireland headquarters, Lower Baggot Street, Dublin) was austere, functionalist and devoid of decoration, ultimately adopted sculptural form (Daniel Libeskind’s theatre building in Grand Canal Square, Dublin, 2010; O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 2011), at which point it no longer required ‘add-on’ sculptures.

The extensive building programme in Ireland in the eighteenth century ensured that there was considerable work for sculptors, much of which remains extant. Earlier examples of architectural sculpture are more scarce. A great deal of the work from this early period has disappeared along with the buildings in question. As ownership or allegiance was made known by way of coats of arms, there was a demand for armorial carving for the façades of properties in the seventeenth century, such as that seen at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford, which is dated 1615. Statuary and/or urns were also to be found on public and private buildings. Willem de Keyser’s over-life-size royal portraits (1684, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin) were publicly positioned on the upper register of the Tholsel in Dublin [92], whereas busts from the same period and worked in a similar heavy baroque style are positioned near ground level at Milltown Castle, Co. Cork. Thought to have arrived there from nearby Charleville House, which was destroyed in 1690, they are placed in niches at the gable end of the gate lodge and in the walls of the stable court. Elaborately detailed chimneypieces, staircases and overdoors were also carved for stately homes in the seventeenth century, among which the oak chimneypiece for Old Bawn, Co. Dublin (1635, NMI), the staircase for Eyrecourt, Co. Galway (c. 1665, Detroit Institute of Arts), and the tympana at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin (1680–84), are notable examples.

Few seventeenth-century Irish sculptors have been identified. The medieval premise of non-associated or group practice, rather than individual recognition, appears to have persisted well into the seventeenth century, with those practitioners who carved headstones and tomb monuments for graveyards and churches not always named. The work is mostly in relief form, both high and low relief, among which early examples are the O’Kerin altar tombs and that of William Fitzgerald, c. 1623, in the grounds of the old church at Kilkea Castle, Co. Kildare. Seventeenth-century wall monuments in Irish churches frequently comprise heraldic emblems or kneeling figures, both of which are often framed by architectural forms. However, more elaborate multi-figured polychrome monuments were also typical of the period, notably that by Edmond Tingham (qv) commemorating the Earl of Cork and his family in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin [300].

Sculpture, in its various forms, has had a long association with death, which does not necessarily indicate continuously morbid concerns. All commemorative and memorial sculptures, even those created during the lifetime of an individual, serve as a form of triumph over the transient nature of existence. Even the death mask, which marks the last likeness of a person and is often used for posthumous portraits (for example, Thomas Farrell’s death masks of John Mitchel and Alexander Martin, both plaster, NGI), is little more than an extension of the life mask. Memorial sculpture does not have a monopoly on death-related subject matter. Ideal sculptures can similarly concern themselves with the passage of time and the fragility of life, either explicitly or unintentionally. In the case of the latter, Patrick MacDowell’s exquisite diploma piece Nymph (1840, marble, RA, on loan to the Palace of Westminster), while apparently no more than a depiction of a young girl, in fact represents a mythological figure who is noted for remaining ageless. Sculptural interest in temporality did not vanish with the new practices in the late twentieth century, but remained evident in ephemeral and time-based work, as seen in Cross’s Ghost Ship, which recalls a once regular sight on the Irish Sea.

Cross employed a luminous paint on her lightship in order that, when lit, it would glow in the dark. In the second half of the twentieth century, somewhat later than in other European countries, Irish sculpture began once more to feature colour. Centuries of monochrome sculptures had appeared to ignore the additional use of colour in the ancient world and, more specifically to Ireland, in medieval work. Colour was reintroduced either by way of paint (John Burke, Red Cardinal, painted steel, 1978 [56], BOI, Lower Baggot Street, Dublin) or in the use of mixed materials (Danny Osborne (qqv), Oscar Wilde, mixed media, 1997 [249], Merrion Square, Dublin). Historically, painting and sculpture had been interdependent in art education. Before the advent of Modernism and the dismantling of long-established teaching practices, students in art academies drew from casts of ancient sculpture. This resulted in all students gaining experience in two-dimensional expression while simultaneously using sculpture to understand three-dimensional form. Some sculptors would continue to use drawing to sketch out their initial ideas, whereas others, who preferred to work in 3D from the outset, denounced the pencil or pen in favour of sketch modelling in wax or clay. John Hogan (qv), among the latter, felt that ‘a sculptor can give no idea as to his intentions on paper’ (letter from Hogan to Lord Cloncurry, March 1841, quoted in Turpin, 1982, p. 78). There have always been artists who cross the divide between sculpture and painting – Michelangelo being the most obvious example. Among several Irish sculptors who have painted, Albert Bruce Joy (qv) chose Barbizon in France as a place to spend time in the 1890s, trying ‘to master the difficulties of painting’ (NYT, 9 July 1911). A hundred years later painters were using sculptural elements in their work (see ‘Painter/Sculptors’) and by this time the separate categories had become less defined and artist was the preferred term for many practitioners.


In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sculpture in Ireland largely reflected the stylistic developments – both British and continental – that were to be found in Britain. Grinling Gibbons in the seventeenth century, Michael Rysbrack (Flemish) and Louis-François Roubiliac (French) in the eighteenth century, and Sir Francis Chantrey and E.H. Baily in the nineteenth century are among the sculptors who, while working in England, carried out portrait work and church monuments for Irish patrons. Large and small Church of Ireland churches across the country contain monuments by most of the eminent sculptors who lived and worked in London in the course of the three centuries. St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, has work by Rysbrack, Roubiliac, Chantrey, John Bacon, Carlo Marochetti and others. Isolated works, often typically peaceful recumbent effigies, are found in churches in counties Kilkenny, Limerick, Offaly and more, among which Scottish sculptor Thomas Campbell’s monument to Charlotte Albinia, Countess of Courtown (1836) in the tiny parish church of Kiltennel, Co. Wexford, is representative.

Commemorative sculpture of a less melancholy nature was also commissioned from non-Irish sculptors for public locations – portrait statues by, for example, Chantrey, Henry Cheere, John Adrien Raemackers and Hamo Thornycroft. While the changing political situation in Ireland has meant that Cheere’s statue of the Duke of Cumberland, which was positioned on a column in Birr, Co. Offaly, and Raemackers’s statue of the third Earl of Cloncarty, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, are no longer in place, Chantrey’s portrait of Henry Grattan (City Hall, Dublin) and Thornycroft’s William Conyngham (Kildare Place, Dublin) [10] remain in situ.

Hamo Thornycroft, William Conyngham, Fourth Baron Plunket, 1901, Kildare Place, Dublin. © Paula Murphy.

Not all the non-Irish sculptors who are represented by work in Ireland simply dispatched the sculptures from their studios in London. Some, like Simon Vierpyl and John van Nost (qqv), chose to work in Ireland and subsequently settled there, as a result of which, in spite of their place of birth, they are considered among the pantheon of Irish sculptors. Van Nost brought with him a vigorous classical baroque style, which, by way of the emphatic presence of his many sculptures in public locations in Dublin, had an immediate impact in the eighteenth century. 

If indeed foreign sculptors dominated the Irish market in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Ireland was to have its very own golden age of sculpture in the nineteenth century. This was heralded by the work of Christopher Hewetson, who left Ireland to work in Rome in 1765, where he remained throughout his career. Hewetson’s ability was recognized by no less a sculptor than Antonio Canova, the Italian Neoclassicist, who dominated developments in the art form in the late eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century. It was traditional for European artists at the time to travel for a period of study in Rome, where they were expected particularly to immerse themselves in the Antique. This was a career step taken by several Irish sculptors, most of whom returned to Ireland, bringing with them an academic form of Neoclassicism. John Hogan was to follow Hewetson to Rome and he spent much of his life there, whereas Thomas Farrell stayed for only a brief period, returning to Dublin to carry out his first major commission, the monument to Archbishop Daniel Murray [104] in St Mary’s Pro Cathedral. The sculpture was designed and carved in the style of Canova’s papal monuments. This was just the beginning of a prolific career for Farrell, whose father and brothers were also sculptors, and who was to be the dominant figure in Irish sculpture through the second half of the nineteenth century. 

However, it was in London that Irish sculptors were making their mark in the course of the nineteenth century. Many of the most talented established their studios there, becoming acknowledged as leaders in the art form. References to the ‘best of British sculpture’ in the mid-century usually implied Foley and MacDowell. The work of John Edward Carew, John Lawlor and Samuel Ferris Lynn (qqv) was also much sought after. But Foley was pre-eminent among them – a celebrity in his own day, when so many Irish sculptors, despite being widely commissioned and no matter where they resided, died in virtual poverty. It was Foley who won the two most prestigious commissions of the mid-nineteenth century – the statue of Prince Albert for the Albert Memorial in London’s Kensington Gardens (in addition to Asia [113], one of the Continent groups) and the national monument to Daniel O’Connell for Dublin. Yet, Irish-born and based in London, Foley remained a controversial figure in his homeland, thought by some to have sold out to British imperialism. 

Foley, who accepted most of the commissions offered to him and therefore had too many to handle, had an extensive studio where he engaged many assistants, resulting in the spread of his sculptural style. Opposed to the dominance of the Antique, he developed an attractive brand of naturalism for his figure work, from which all trace of academic formality and stiffness was removed in favour of a more relaxed appearance. Foley and his fellow Irish sculptors in London shone at the international displays of art and industry, known as Great Exhibitions (qv) (Expositions Universelles) (see ‘Great Exhibitions: Sculpture’), where, winning awards for Britain, they were often described as ‘English’. The work of Patrick MacDowell, when displayed at the Paris exhibition in 1855, was widely acknowledged by the French, including poet and art critic Théophile Gautier, who found the work charming. By coincidence, at this time France was gaining notoriety as the centre for new developments in painting, notably Realism, which would simultaneously render MacDowell’s work shockingly outdated. France was to emerge as the artistic capital of Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, with Impressionism (a specifically painting style) rejecting centuries of tradition. By the end of the century sculptors were declaring their allegiance to Paris, eager to immerse themselves in the work of Auguste Rodin, who has been identified as ‘the best known artist in the world’ at the beginning of the twentieth century (William Tucker, ‘Introduction’, in Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin and other prose pieces, London and New York, 1986, p. x). 

Rodin was inspiring a new generation of sculptors. His emotional content, expressive gesturing and textural surface finish liberated sculpture from the formerly popular, but rigidly inexpressive, academic work. He was to have a particular influence in Ireland in that his style encouraged sculptors to model rather than to carve, resulting in considerably more bronze sculptures being produced than theretofore. Foley, who had access to foundry processes in London, had tackled bronze, along with stone, for his public sculptures. Irish sculptors in the course of the nineteenth century rarely worked in bronze, with which they were unfamiliar and for which there was no local casting expertise. It was not until the 1890s and the early twentieth century that multiple examples of bronze works began to appear, particularly in the subject pieces of Oliver Sheppard, who, along with Mervyn Lawrence, revealed the sophistication and fluidity of French inspiration in their work. 

Because of its legacy in antiquity and the powerful and relentless influence of ancient art over centuries, sculpture generally had been slow to break with tradition. However, when the stimulus of African art dictated new forms of sculptural expression in Europe in the early twentieth century, this did not manifest itself in Ireland. Although a primitive impetus prevailed in the work of artist and craftsman Séamus Murphy (qv), whose career spanned much of the century, the range and style of his work is revealing of the conservative artistic demands of the young state. Religious images and political portraits abound in Murphy’s oeuvre, carved with a directness that belies their spiritual and inspirational nature. Photographs of the young sculptor, hammer and chisel in hand, working a likeness of Patrick Pearse or a statue of an Irish saint in stone are visual documents of state and church patronage in Ireland in the early decades after Independence. Perhaps inevitably, in what was a carefully protected environment, influences from earlier Celtic work and its nineteenth-century revival are evident. Murphy’s church and churchyard sculptures carved in stone place him in a lengthy, if interrupted, Irish sculptural tradition. The stripping down of decorative/descriptive detailing, the simplification of volumes, the emphatic linear quality, the aesthetic and spiritual concerns in Murphy’s work, and that of his contemporaries Gabriel Hayes and Laurence Campbell (qqv) in the 1930s and ’40s, represent an intermediate stage between the academic work of the previous generation and the abstract concerns of the next. More understated and yet more knowingly artistic in both relief and fully three-dimensional work, they often intentionally rejected the natural representation of reality in favour of a depiction that is skilful and sophisticated in its craft, while simple and dignified in its imagery. The work of Campbell, and indeed Murphy and Hayes, was recognized in 1943 as a ‘combination of new but unstartling design and technical excellence’ (Máirín Allen, FMR (June 1943), 3). 

Art that was deliberately abstract was slow to find popular or official support in Ireland. Anne Crookshank has suggested that in sculpture ‘the predominance of church work has probably been one of the main reasons’ for this (Crookshank, 1984, p. 59). The painter Mainie Jellett (qv AAI v) had struggled, with little success, earlier in the century to educate the Irish viewer in this regard. Long established in different parts of Europe, abstract art was experienced by those artists who travelled. Deborah Brown (qv) said that she did not come into contact with abstract work until she visited Paris in 1950 (Anne Crookshank, Deborah Brown, exh. cat. ACNI, 1982, n.p.). It was only in the second half of the century that a pure abstract style finally gained artistic and public confidence in Ireland. As the nation matured, it became less wary of the suspected dangers of foreign influences on Irish culture. Nonetheless, the International Exhibition of Sculpture (see ‘ISI’) at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (HL) in 1959 comprised work by many non-Irish artists but little that was daringly new. However, it did include a geometric abstract work by Desmond Broe (qv). In a country where sculpture received ‘little encouragement or scope’ (Leo Broe, International Exhibition of Sculpture, exh. cat. Dublin, 1959, n.p.), the first Rosc exhibition, in 1967, intended to introduce contemporary trends in art to the Irish public, focused largely on abstract painting. For the late 1960s, this was a cautious, even traditional, approach to modern art. ROSC ’71 [410], however, was not similarly restricted and included work by such influential American abstract sculptors as Donald Judd, Alexander Calder, Robert Morris and Louise Nevelson. 

It was during the 1970s that a new interest in form for its own sake, in the work of Irish artists, was seen to challenge the traditionally functional nature of sculpture, witnessed in portrait and religious work. The influence of the monumental abstract works of Calder can be identified in the richly coloured painted steel forms of Michael Bulfin and John Burke (qqv) on the Bank of Ireland plaza in Lower Baggot Street, Dublin [54, 56]. These sculptures have an insistent visual presence, revealing the way in which form and colour can enliven space. Ronnie Tallon’s dark bank building serves as a perfect foil for the bold, dramatic, angular and fluid forms. The developments that took place in Irish architectural design and its associated space in the 1960s and ’70s were particularly pertinent for sculpture in its abstract form. 

Less immediate, less obvious and more subtle than the public abstract work of the 1970s, the sculptures of Michael Warren and Eilís O’Connell (qqv) are devoid of bright colours and project something of the gravitas traditionally associated with classical art. Warren’s contemplative abstract forms are imbued with silence. Superficially simple and visually austere, the non-figurative forms project into but do not dominate space. If Warren’s sculptural forms are inherently masculine, Eilís O’Connell has a different agenda. More closed, more contained, more industrial and, ultimately, more finished, her richly varied forms often suggest gender issues. 

O’Connell was a winner, along with Kathy Prendergast and Aileen MacKeogh (qqv), of the GPA award for Emerging Artists in 1981, the year of its inauguration. (Felim Egan (qv AAI v) was also a winner in 1981.) Within three years the (then annual) GPA Emerging Artists exhibition was being ‘loosely classified as the modernist, art college tradition by the inclusion of work which orientated towards moderately experimental mediums and concepts’ (Joan Fowler, editorial, Circa, 19 (November/ December 1984), 6) In fact, these three sculptors were part of a group of Irish female artists who played an important role in the development of Irish sculpture generally in the 1980s, pushing the boundaries of the art form in Ireland, initially in their choice of materials and subsequently by the ways in which they used them. This was a reaction against the ‘tendency for painting to occupy the dominant position in the arena of artistic activity’ (Deirdre O’Connell (qv), ‘Waiting for a Cue’, Circa, 16 (May/ June, 1984), 11). The large and aggressively painted canvases of the 1980s, categorized as examples of a new expressionist style, remained nonetheless a traditional mode of visual expression and, more particularly, the domain of male artists. Women were keen to work outside the tradition and, in their search for independence and individuality, they began to explore a new sculptural language. If heretofore the work of male and female sculptors might occasionally be differentiated by form, the exploration of new materials, which became prevalent in the 1980s, marked not just a re-emergence of interest in sculpture, but a newly important position for women in art in Ireland. This was to echo the 1920s and the place of Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone and their contemporaries in the development of Irish Modernism. Kathy Prendergast, Alanna O’Kelly, Dorothy Cross, Alice Maher, Patricia McKenna and Louise Walsh (qqv), among others, rejected the trend towards what Cross has described as ‘co-architectural, saleable, permanent work’ (‘From the Horse’s Mouth’, ibid., 16) and began to employ a wide range of materials from fabric to found object. If the use of non-traditional materials was considered capricious and particularly female in the late nineteenth century (Mathias Morhardt, ‘Mademoiselle Camille Claudel’, Le Mercure de France, March 1898, noted in Kristen Frederickson, Word & Image, 12 (April/June 1996, 161–74), by 1912 the Futurists were recommending such sculptural practice (Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, 1912, in Umbro Apollonio (ed.), Futurist Manifestos, London, 1973, pp. 51–65). Significantly in the 1960s the German-born American process artist Eva Hesse (1936–70) was employing a wide range of non-traditional materials for the making of very personal abstract sculpture. By the end of the century, influenced by what was happening outside the country, these Irish women were considered to have ‘played a fundamental role in the re-definition of sculpture’ in Ireland (Don Prince, ‘The Object of Sculpture’, Circa, 20 (January/February 1985), 21). Alanna O’Kelly claimed in 1984 that her work, made out of such natural materials as flax, sally rods and stones, had ‘little connection with previous Irish sculpture’ (in conversation with John Meany, Circa, 14 (January/February 1984), 21), while Dorothy Cross, returning home in the same year after eight years away, in London and San Francisco, noted her amazement at the absence of exploratory work in sculpture in Ireland to date (‘From the Horse’s Mouth’, op. cit.). 

Women artists’ loss of faith in the making of traditional art objects resulted in them producing work that is certainly personal if not always necessarily feminist. The new materials employed were more suited to expressing their chosen subjects for sculpture, which emerged from the entirety of their lives. The fact that ‘materials speak’ and can have an expressive input to sculptural work was not unique to the modern period. Traditional materials, such as stone and wood, are inherently expressive, but they too were regarded as having been appropriated by male artists. The new materials were more tactile and incorporated layered histories and meanings. The works suggested first-person art without being strictly autobiographical, invoking contexts that were not individually exclusive: Kathy Prendergast spoke of ‘a personal geography’ (John McBratney, ‘Something more exciting than ordinary living, the art of Kathy Prendergast’, IAR, 13 (1997), 186); Alanna O’Kelly described herself as woman, mother and artist (author interview with artist, 1997); Alice Maher reflected on the repressive nature of her Irish Catholic upbringing (Fiona Barber and Cécile Bourne, familiar: Alice Maher, New Works, Derry and Dublin, 1995, p.27); Maud Cotter examined ‘amputated parts of (her) own consciousness’ (Nuala Fenton interview with artist, 0044, p. 49); Eilís O’Connell revealed that ‘the fabric of [her] life enters the work’ (Claire Schneider interview with artist, ibid., p. 113). In 1989, Kathy Prendergast used cloth, string, paint and wood to create Stack (IMMA) [11]. The dense pile of fragments of cloth incorporates multi-layered references to women and women’s work, to Ireland and Irish industries, to land and sea. Closed, contained and monumental, the work, although particularly tactile, suggests inaccessibility and remoteness. By contrast, English sculptor Tony Cragg’s squared Stack, 1976 (Tate Modern), is made of layered cement, plaster, wood, concrete, stone and wire. Conspicuously male, Cragg’s materials suggest the debris of a builder’s yard, while Prendergast’s evoke the remnants from a dressmaker’s floor.

Kathy Prendergast, Stack, 1989, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art. © Kathy Prendergast, courtesy Kerlin Gallery.

The most experimental and adventurous among this group is Dorothy Cross, whose work shifts with ease from the small and delicate to the huge and powerful, from single object through series to installation, from the serious to the humorous. She has worked with materials as diverse as the relatively traditional gold and silver, photography and DVD to the more exotic birds’ nests, cow hides, snakes, and even a mortuary slab. Her desire to address social issues, particularly gender-related, is most evident in her installation work. Ebb (1988, DHG) [434], one of the earliest installations in Ireland, comprised individual and partnered sculptures – all separately titled and subsequently separated – which explored the complexity of male and female relationships and sexuality, notably in an Irish context. Installation work has established a new relationship between the artwork and the viewer. Time spent walking through the display, cross-referencing different elements and memorizing the sensation of what is transient work makes new demands of the audience. Sometimes a sense of ritual is involved, as in the case of Patricia McKenna’s (qv) Grey House, 1993 [204]. McKenna chose to work, beyond the gallery space, in a remote, abandoned house in County Cavan, access to which was gained by collecting a key from a shop in the nearest town a mile and a half away. The local community was invited to participate in the creation of the artwork, furnishing personal objects to reactivate the space. McKenna’s concern to make art that comes from ‘the core of who you are’ rejects the imposition of work on a community in favour of, in this instance, harnessing or establishing a collective memory (author interview with the artist, 2002).

More specifically political sculptural work, particularly that which makes reference to Northern Ireland, has tended to remain the remit of male sculptors – many of whom experienced the Troubles at first hand, among them F.E. McWilliam, Locky Morris and Philip Napier (qqv). McWilliam, in a harrowing series of images of violence and suffering, Women of Belfast, 1972 (see Woman in a Bomb Blast, [210]), depicts the women as vulnerable, innocent bystanders. In these bronze statuettes of women thrown through space in the wake of a bomb blast, their skirts are as much a reaffirmation of their vulnerability as they are essential to the expressive dynamic of the individual sculptures and an abstract symbol of femaleness. Morris explored the intrusive nature of security and barriers and the contrived spaces that are no-go areas. Napier used found objects and their different possible interpretations to facilitate questioning, without taking sides or suggesting answers – balancing opposites in his attempt ‘to understand not to illustrate’ the complexity of the situation (IT, 29 January 1997). Ballad No 1 (1992, ACNI) [222] challenges notions of official commemorative art. Employing the famously smiling photograph of dead IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, and remembering/reanimating him by means of an accordion/artificial lung, Napier evokes the way in which memory is kept alive and propagandized by both the ballad tradition and the memorial band. His installation Gauge, 1997 [223], comprising among other elements 14 (the number of civilian dead of Bloody Sunday) speakers and weighing scales and a haunting voice apologizing repeatedly, examined the value of apology. Both works draw on specific incidents to explore more general concerns. 

Not only was Napier making use of found objects and sound to create his installation, he also chose to display the work in a non-gallery venue. Gauge was first exhibited in the Orchard Gallery, Derry, followed by display in a derelict house in the Bogside. By the close of the twentieth century several sculptors were choosing to dispense with the official display areas or ‘white cube’ galleries in favour of less pristine and more meaningful locations. This resulted in exciting developments in Community Art, most notably in Ballymun, Co. Dublin. Breaking Ground, a public art project which commenced in 2001, was part of the Ballymun Regeneration Programme. The artists involved collaborated with the residents to produce work, both permanent and temporary, in a wide variety of media – some of which are Kevin Atherton’s Another Sphere (stainless steel and cctv, 2009), Andrew Kearney’s Illumination (light on the boilerhouse, 2002), Grace Weir (qqv) and Graham Parker’s Sight Unseen (36-minute film, 2005) and John Byrne’s Misneach (bronze, 2007–10) [12]. Misneach – depicting a young girl riding bare-back on a horse – required that a local girl be selected from among her peers and her likeness cast in bronze. For the equestrian element, Byrne took a cast of John Henry Foley’s horse that forms part of the Gough statue [475] which had once stood in Dublin’s Phoenix Park – thus participating in a long artistic tradition of modernizing earlier work. German conceptual artist Jochen Gerz, renowned for his many international public works, was involved in the Breaking Ground project from 2003. His amaptocare was a tree-donation scheme, where members of the public, particularly locals, purchased a tree. A subsequent conversation between the donor and the artist resulted in a reflective comment being inscribed on a plaque to be planted alongside the tree – each tree, therefore, remaining identified with its purchaser. Gerz was involving the community in drawing nature back into an environment that had been notoriously underdeveloped. Much of the artwork created for Breaking Ground was a manifestation of sculpture in its newly expanded field.

John Byrne, Misneach: A Monumental Celebration of Youth, 2010, Ballymun, Dublin. © John Byrne & photographer Rory McAllorum.

Moving beyond and outside the gallery space was also instrumental in the establishment of sculpture parks and trails in different parts of the country, which were occasionally the outcome of symposia and could incorporate both lasting and transient work. For Tír Sáile (1993) [55] in Mayo and the Achill Symposium (1996), the selected artists, national and international, worked with regional materials and engaged with the local community over a period of weeks, creating sculptures that responded to designated sites. The series of works, made out of stone, earth and wood or as a result of planting, was intended to create a sculpture trail that would stretch over many kilometres. Weathering naturally over time, the sculptures are ultimately drawn back into nature. The primitive nature of the work, the working conditions and the materials suggest a form of Land or Earth Art. Yet, while the artists were reworking the land to create sculptural form, the resulting work lacked the independence associated with Land Art. Brian King (qv), Richard Long and James Turrell dig, reposition or reshape the land, free from outside control. In Turrell’s Sky Garden, 1995 [421], at Liss Ard in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, a mound of land has been restructured in order to frame a portion of the sky, obliging the viewer to become absorbed in the ever-changing light over the country.

Sculpture in the Parklands (qv) at Lough Boora in County Offaly is a sculpture park of a different kind. Set on the decommissioned land of the peat bog in the Irish midlands, the sculptures are mostly made from materials found on site. This can be particularly varied, from bog-wood to stone, and from obsolete train carriages to railway sleepers. Sculptors, who create their work during residencies in the Parklands, have included Eileen MacDonagh and Michael Bulfin, both of whom, in 2002, created what might be seen as relatively traditional works in the context, in that they are both objects in space. MacDonagh’s Pyramid (stone) echoes an ancient architectural form; Bulfin’s Skytrain (found object) [13] recalls the original use of the site and the activities long since passed from it. However, incorporating sculpture in all its variety, in 2010 the Parklands witnessed Performance Art by Nigel Rolfe (qv) and Environmental Art by American Brandon Ballengée, both of whom were more actively if also more temporarily involved with the site. Rolfe, in Float, worked ‘directly body to bog’, immersing himself physically in the land, and Ballengée, in Love Motel for Insects, an installation that used ultraviolet light on a vast canvas to attract little creatures at night, created ‘pheromone paintings’ (Sculpture in the Parklands website). Ballengée compares his work and interest to that of German artist Joseph Beuys. Both the Rolfe and the Ballengée works were part of projects with which the artists had been involved in other countries, thus connecting developments in Irish sculpture worldwide.

Michael Bulfin, Sky-Train, 2002, Lough Boora Parklands, Co. Offaly. © Tom Egan, Bord na Mona.

The continuing work at Sculpture in the Parklands exemplifies the changing nature of sculpture in Ireland since the late twentieth century. Two artists in particular can be deemed responsible for the revolutionary developments that have taken place in the art form. While it is difficult to ignore the innovative sculptural work that Picasso was producing in Paris in the early part of the century, it was his contemporary there, Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) who would create the most serious challenge to the long upheld traditions in sculpture. Duchamp’s ready-mades, the first of which, Bicycle Wheel, he constructed in Paris in 1913, established questioning as part of the artwork. His work queried the necessity of many of the fundamental principles associated with art generally and sculpture in particular – craft, uniqueness, meaning, display, authorship – inviting the viewer to consider what is art. Bicycle Wheel also introduced new elements of movement and sound into the sculptural work. However it is Duchamp’s Fountain (a mass-produced porcelain urinal, 1917) which can probably lay claim to having been the most liberating work for sculptors, dismantling the notion of rules for art practice and, in its aftermath, allowing that sculpture could be made from any material. While no aspiring avant-garde Irish sculptor would have remained ignorant of Duchamp and his work by the time of the latter’s death, the artist did not visit Ireland and his work was largely experienced in the country by way of its influence in the work of sculptors such as Ian Stuart (qv), who returned from a scholarship period in the US to exhibit ready-made work in Dublin in 1961 (IT, 24 June 1961).

By contrast, Joseph Beuys (1921–86) was physically present in Ireland on several occasions in the 1970s and ’80s. ‘No ordinary sculptor’ (Joseph Beuys, exhibition pamphlet, Tate, 2005, n.p.), Beuys did make sculptures, if not necessarily with traditional materials (Fat up to this level was included in ROSC ’77), as well as engaging in Performance. His work is sculptural in the widest understanding of the term. Beuys exhibited and lectured in Ireland, and engaged with the country, particularly its politics, to such an extent that he had hopes of establishing his Free International University in Dublin. Reviewing his exhibition The secret block for a secret person in Ireland at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (later HL) in Dublin in 1974, Brian Fallon recognized ‘an artist of obvious and fertile talent’, but thought him to be ‘scarcely a major one’ (IT, 25 September 1974). Thirty years later in 2004, when Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of all time by 500 art experts in a poll commissioned by the sponsors of the British Turner Prize, Beuys, who was the inspiration behind much Performance Art, was acknowledged among the top ten influential artists, along with Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Donald Judd. Beuys opened up the debate on contemporary art in Ireland and reintroduced an element of Irishness to a seemingly non-national form of expression with Irish Energies, 1974 [432] – a sandwich of peat briquettes and Kerrygold butter.

Since the late twentieth century, it is the sculptor-artists in Ireland who have the most experimental art practices and it is the sculpture departments in the art colleges that have facilitated such experimentation. Through the proliferation of public art and community projects, sculpture/environment work is probably the most widely experienced art form.

‘What sculpture is in the end is decided by sculptors. The language of sculpture has been broadened to include the language of architecture and engineering, sound, space, photo video and projection. The nature of space, our understanding of it and/or use of it has changed. The language sculptors use has been extended through materials; … the artist [has been] given the keys to other doors’ (John Gibbons, 0044, p. 64).