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John Hayes/Martin O'Brien
guardian of the déise

This 'massively ambitious' 200ft sculpture could welcome visitors to Waterford

This bronze-coloured steel beast could be watching over Waterford by 2021, if the €22 million in funding is approved.

A CHAINSAW CARVER’S idea to build a 200-ft sculpture has received private financial backing for the first step in the project, which includes a visitor’s centre and cable cars.

John Hayes, who carved a 20-metre Viking sword for the Ploughing Championships in 2017, has pitched the ‘Guardian of the Déise’ as a tourist attraction for the south-east.

Visitors will be able to climb up the steel sculpture, according to the plans, which will sit atop a hill overlooking Waterford, and give people a wide view of the south-east coast.

The total project is expected to cost €22 million, including the visitors’ centre, a trail, cable cars, and other work – the idea has been submitted in an application for funding to Fáilte Ireland Platforms for Growth grant.

The €150 million fund will run from 2019 – 2022 with the aim of funding “platforms or project types that have the greatest potential to grow tourism across Ireland”.

“It’s massively ambitious,” Hayes tells

image4 John Hayes / Martin O'Brien John Hayes / Martin O'Brien / Martin O'Brien


When speaking to me, John Hayes was in Green Bay, Wisconsin where he’s taking part in the American Chainsaws Championships. It’s his third time entering the championships professionally – last year, he came in fourth place. 

This year there’s a wildlife theme, so he’s going to do a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ sculpture with three pigs, while also incorporating the big big bad wolf.

He says that the competition will be tough: the best from around the world attend and each nationality brings their own twist to the theme: a Welsh competitor is doing a dragon, and one of the best from Japan specialises in “really cute animals”.

But what design he carves also depends on the quality of the wood he’s working on. Logs are around 2.5ft wide 8-10ft high, all having been naturally felled. Who gets what log is decided by numbering each one, throwing the numbers in a hat, and each competitor drawing a name out.

“Hopefully I get a good log,” Hayes told

Hayes started chainsaw carving five years ago, during the recession when the carpentry trade was hit “fairly badly”. A man asked him to carve an ornate piece for a playground, and slowly since then he’s gained attention for his craftwork.

Of the five years he’s been chainsaw carving, he’s been working on this “ambitious” tourism plan for the Guardian of the Déise for four years.

It was the original idea I had for my version of the Irish Statue of Liberty – to represent who we are and what we are as a people.

The most memorable things about a city are unique sculptures, Hayes says, like Brazil’s  Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The idea of the Guardian is to bring people to the area, and then other businesses will have the opportunity to sell their crafts.

He says that in Falkirk, Scotland, tourists were passing through the area and locals couldn’t get them to stop and stay. A local artist Andy Scott then came up with the kelpies, a series of giant 30-metre high steel sculptures of horses heads, which gained traction internationally. 1 million visited the sculptures in the first year.

For the Guardian of the Déise, the suit of the sculpture will be carved with Irish poetry, folklore, and history. As you move up the steps, the handrail will get thinner, giving people a sense of increasing altitude.

image2 John Hayes / Martin O'Brien John Hayes / Martin O'Brien / Martin O'Brien

For every person who comes to the centre, it’s envisaged that a tree will be planted: people who connect back to their Irish roots will get to literally root something in Irish soil, which will also help promote a ‘green’ image, Hayes says.

The Guardian will be the gatekeeper, the storyteller. So you’ll start your journey and look at these stories, you can move through the statue which will teach you things you already know, but in a different way. Everybody gets a change to walk the steps of Irish history.
From all the research I’ve done, if you give a sculpture a soul, it’s not just an art piece anymore.

As part of his attempt to win funding, Hayes has argued that the impact of such an attraction in the region would be huge.

At the moment, the south-east gets 500,000 visitors down a year; much less than regions in the west or south-west. 

“We have some fantastic things in this region – but we need to shout about them. 

People say we have the best beaches, but I don’t know where they are! So put up a sign and show it to people! That might sound harsh, but it’s the truth!

The project has be backing of Waterford City Council and Falcon Real Estate, who were behind the development at the North Quays.

“It will be an engineering feat when it’s done,” Hayes says – but when will it be done, if at all?

“There’s currently five stages to the plan – at the moment we’re lucky to get the investor which is stage one. The second stage is all the details, the third phase is the business plan. Fáilte Ireland are aiming for it to be done by 2021.”

image1 John Hayes / Martin O'Brien John Hayes / Martin O'Brien / Martin O'Brien

So a super steel structure of a bronze-green colour, embossed with Irish culture, poetry and folklore, with stairs made from recycled timber, might be the next great Irish tourist attraction. 

The planned location for the sculpture is the same place where Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish nationalist who was sentenced to life in prison in 1848, sat before he said goodbye to Waterford and escaped to America, where he later became a US military governor.

“And here we are telling the Irish to come home now again,” Hayes says. 

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