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Protests have taken place against the sculpture.
Protests have taken place against the sculpture.
Image: John Madden

How a Shannon-side sculpture sparked a culture war in Athlone

A proposed sculpture has fueled a debate about cultural misappropriation in Athlone.
Aug 18th 2019, 9:31 PM 28,886 22

A BATTLE BETWEEN two traditions is stirring in Athlone.

Sparked by plans for a new sculpture representing the River Shannon, some locals are accusing the local council of sponsoring cultural misappropriation – something that has its roots in English attempts to rubbish Irish heritage. 

What started with a letter from a local academic has turned into dispute that has involved councillors, TDs and government ministers – and which shows no sign of ending anytime soon. 

To some, the 11-foot tall sculpture is simply an innocuous piece of public art. Designed by Mayo artist Rory Breslin, the €60,000 work depicts the River Shannon as a bronze-faced male river god, inspired by the famous neoclassical designs on the Custom House in Dublin. 

Yet to critics, the sculpture is a slap in the face to Irish culture. Talking to opponents, they highlight two main issues. Firstly, it represents an unconscious revival of old colonial attempts to undermine Irish culture and replace it with more civilised art forms. 

But just as significantly, it also whitewashes an old Irish goddess  – Sínann, from where the river gets its name – and replaces it with a classical male god imported into Irish art by the English. 

Opposition

Opposition began to surface only a few weeks ago, months after the sculpture had been chosen following a public consultation process. 

On 25 May, Athlone native Prof Ralph Kenna, who now works at Coventry University in the UK, published a letter in the Westmeath Independent and sent it to the local council. 

In the letter, he argued that the proposed sculpture represented a misappropriation of Irish heritage and a misrepresentation of Athlone. 

In June, he wrote to the Westmeath County Council again. He re-iterated his points and tried to explain why the sculpture was a mistake. The response, he says, was disappointing. 

His next step was to take to the airwaves. On 12 July, he appeared on Athlone Community Radio to highlight the issue – and at this moment an organised opposition group began to form. 

A Facebook group was established, a petition was circulated online and a protest was organised on 5 August after a meeting with the council failed to placate Kenna’s concerns. 

Capture The sculpture at the centre of the dispute. Source: Westmeath Independent

On 27 July, an open letter was published addressed to Westmeath County Council. In the letter, signed by over 120 people – including academics from Spain, Armenia and Brazil – the sculpture is described as a “misappropriation of Athlone’s and Ireland’s heritage, a affront to Mná na hÉireann and to people who value parity”. 

Although our town has no female iconography, you, our Council, deem it appropriate to commission a concocted male figure instead of the authentic female one which is steeped in our heritage and story.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Kenna is adamant that he simply wants to encourage a debate – to give people a chance to re-think their choice now that more information is available. 

It’s a bit like Brexit, he jokes. 

But Kenna – a physicist who describes his research as a marriage of myth and maths – also sees it as something deadly serious and with ramifications for Irish culture beyond Athlone. “The danger is that our heritage that we learn about is being eclipsed,” he says. 

The council, he thinks, is hiding behind process and procedure in a bid to ignore the wider issue. He calls it “disappointing that anyone could think this is suitable for my town”. 

“It’s about the symbolism – it’s going to be there forever,” he says. 

It was Kenna’s passion that inspired others to get involved. “This is an issue about cultural misappropriation, it’s an issue about replacing a female god with a god from another history, another region,” said Fiona Lynam, a Social Democrat representative who is working on the campaign. 

“We shouldn’t have a male god – we have a goddess,” Lynam added. “The answer from the council has been curt – but it hasn’t put us off.”

The river

For many, Athlone’s identity is bound up in the river, which for centuries has provided the town with an economic lifeline. Every year in August, a festival takes place that celebrates the impact of the river, which still today provides jobs and attracts tourists to the ancient settlement. 

The town has been settled from the 12th century, has survived the Williamite and Jacobite wars and has for centuries been a crucial crossing point for the Shannon. 

“It’s the defining aspect of the town. It’s why the town exists. It was the only bridge across the Shannon for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” Lynam says. 

“People have been boating on the river for generations,” says Kenna. “The identity of the town is coupled with the river.”

This is what makes the fight so important for activists. The sculpture shouldn’t simply be a piece of public art, but a monument that recognises the contribution of the Shannon to the town’s development.

Heike Havertz and Susanne Wunsch (4) A protest took place in recent weeks in Athlone. Source: John Madden

Orla Donnelly, who has been contacting politicians as part of the campaign, is determined to force the council to change its mind. “I still believe that with a bit of will and humility by the council that it could be possible to get an appropriate representation of the Shannon in the town,” she says. 

Donnelly said that the campaign has contacted Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, while at a meeting during the last week she said that Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, the local TD, had agreed that the symbolism of the statue was an issue.

Moran did not respond to a request for comment from TheJournal.ie. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht confirmed that it had been contacted in relation to the sculpture. A spokesperson said: “The commissioning of this art piece is a matter for the local authority and it would not be appropriate therefore for the Minister to intervene.”

However, TheJournal.ie understands that on 12 August officials from the department contacted the campaign and said they were reviewing the matter. 

Whatever happens next, Kenna, Lynam and Donnelly all stress that they have no issues with the sculpture itself as a piece of art or with Breslin himself – who did not respond when contacted by TheJournal.ie

“We’re not just no no no merchants – we’re in favour of something,” says Donnelly. 

The issue is more about what the sculpture represents – and that’s something they think the council is failing to grasp.

The council

The late-stage intervention from the local activists – who are trying to convert the rest of Athlone to their cause – has caused frustration and concern among some local councillors. 

Certainly, when a piece of public art for the newly developed Church St was mooted back in 2018, no one thought it would controversial. Ahead of the three options going on display in January 2019, the only controversy was over the process of public consultation and who had the final decision.

While the public were allowed to vote for their favourite, it was a specially convened panel that made the ultimate choice. 

The recent furore has prompted a mixed reaction from representatives. 

“It’s subjective. Artists will get their inspiration from where they get it,” Fianna Fáil councillor Aengus O’Rourke said. “It comes from the Galway races or the Cliffs of Moher. I’m not an artist.”

“The decision was open, transparent and in the public view,” says O’Rourke. “We’re hardly going to turn that process upside down.”

Even councillors more sympathetic to the group’s concerns, such as the Green Party’s Louise Heavin, who has called for the council to re-open the discussion on the sculpture, acknowledge that reversing the decision isn’t that simple – especially as the public helped make it.

Maybe there’s a “larger issue with how things go on display,” Heavin suggests. “How much do the public engage with these sorts of things?”

In a statement, Westmeath County Council declined to comment on the criticism of the sculpture. However, a spokesperson said that the brief for the work was “deliberately open to encourage ideas from artists submitting, and for example it suggested that figurative or abstract works inspired by a variety of themes would be welcome”. 

“The assessment and commissioning process have been completed appropriately and the project is proceeding as planned,” the council said. 

Kenna is now back in Coventry and is watching the debate from afar – he had hoped his letter would make people in Athlone listen. But as things stand, a new god is on the way for the Shannon. 

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Dominic McGrath

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