The Marian statues of Dublin – repost from CHTM

It has been a considerable period of time since posting here but so much has happened with both the process and actual writing of this thesis that I have been concentrating my efforts on that. There’s a lot more work on my plate at IBC too lately and that’s fine. I want to introduce this repost from the wonderful Come Here to Me blog and put a little more emphasis on the questions I asked at the end of the interview: what constitutes the religious in public space and how are things like heritage construed? How faith / the religious / the transcendent gets reproduced in space and specific places is the central core of the thesis I am now writing, to complete in late 2013.

I argue in particular that in the (re)production of public space in Ireland, separating the religious from the secular becomes more and more difficult. Throw a spatial container like geographical scale into the mix and it all becomes a little more complex again. This stuff matters because, as my work will show, the siting of Marian statues is as politically contentious as the siting of Catholic schools (I examine both, with pilgrimage sandwiched in there). Statues remain on public ground and lots of primary schools do too. So what then is political / cultural secularization if it is not the decline of the religion and its influence over time? Can we meaningfully argue that a political operationalisation of a secularization process  (let alone a right-wingers dream of a return of religion) exists? Per is not right wing.

Anyway, here’s the reposted blog post from August 1st, with a small number of edits.

Eoin, what brought you to study Dublin’s Marian statues in the first place?

At the moment, I am researching public and private Catholicism in Ireland because I’m trying to understand what we mean by secularisation. A lot of formal social science research tends to put secularisation on the basis of a decline in religious influence. I think my own research tends towards placing religion in some spaces and not in others. That these spaces have meaning for fewer people is a lot more complex than saying religion is simply disappearing. And so I am looking at the maintenance and public discussion about these statues, about 28 of them across the city. Part of this is trying to understand why they are placed on green space near housing. Another part is trying to make sense about why they survive as places of significance for some. An entry question for me is, if Ireland is or has become more secular, why has no one taken a lump hammer to these stautes? (EDIT: or why they have persisted.)

You said that you’re looking at 28 Marian statues in Dublin. I’ve seen some of them but are there really that many?

There are more than 28 for sure and they’re not all statues of Mary. A handful of them are Sacred Heart statues but that’s another story. I’ve noticed that most of them are in and near housing areas, most of them public housing built in and around the Marian Year of 1954. People might have noticed the large canopy on the junction of Gray and Reginald streets in Dublin 8. If you walk along Meath Street and look up to the right past the bookies you cannot miss it. It is a large canopied structure originally built as a water fountain until the top was knocked off during the War of Independence. The local residents created a Sacred Heart shrine of it (EDIT: in 1929, probably to commemorate the centenary of Catholic emancipation) after this time and it was rededicated for the Papal visit in 1979. Beyond that however, I would like to know how this maintains its meaning for people in that area and how it did it retain a status of not being an impediment to traffic for example. How something in the landscape that gets defined as an impediment goes to the heart of the re-creation that occurs in town planning, for example. Now there’s nothing in the Corporation’s minutes about this or any other structure being erected or retained. I would like to figure out why not.

There’s a statue nearby in a new housing complex called the Timberyard, it’s on the corner of Weaver’s and Cork streets. If you look at the apex of the building there’s a small statue of Mary built into the building itself and has a kneeling step. The thing to note about this statue is that it re-places a statue that sat on that derelict site for over ten years. The old timber yard that used to lie here (EDIT: historical OSi maps indicate brewery nearby)has been replaced by an apartment block called The Timberyard and the same statue sits on the site. (EDIT: not of central concern to me but the naming of such a block after something long gone is also which resonates in my thesis, how time is often discounted in geography.) In fact, the principal architect for this building told me that there was a specific request at planning stage for the statue to be placed on the site somewhere (EDIT: she provided letters from residents to the Council as evidence). The story goes that the original shrine was put in the skip when site clearance took place. One of the builders took it back out and gave it to a nearby resident while the construction took place. The architect told me that a specific space was created for Our Lady of the Liberties in the new building because it meant something to those who were to move in there. In my own research I noted that it stands at a significant point of access although few enough people cross themselves when passing as may have been the case in the past.

So why are these statues interesting?

I don’t think they’re any more interesting than other statues in the city, for example the ones of Larkin or Connolly. To me however they represent a particular form of Catholicism that is found outside the church building but not domesticated either. Their significance comes from the fact that they are neither within churches nor within people’s homes but on nominally public land. There are several more statues of Mary in the suburbs of Dublin, notably in Cabra, Artane and Stillorgan. When I was starting out and told people that I was looking for where these statues were, people would say things like “I never noticed them before you asked me but now I see them all over the place”. To me this tells me that unless you are attuned to the religious they mean very little, a little like those signs you see indicating when you can park somewhere for a fee. You don’t go looking for them unless you have a car to park. For me, this is the religious: it is significance placed somewhere. (EDIT: this is where I want to bind Merleau-Ponty’s bodily intentionality to Lefebvre’s work on produced space.)

Because many of these are placed in green spaces near public housing projects should, I think, tell us something about the constitution of public space. It would not have been out of the ordinary for these statues to take up green space in housing areas in the 1950s because very few would have objected to public Marian devotion. Rosaries were said at these statues, children would have played around them as focal points and they also add to the aesthetic pride of the place itself. (EDIT: many are also surrounded by railings, denoting that this is not the same space that you let your dog crap on.) In summer 2010, I photographed the Marian statue in Maryland Dublin 8 and I spoke with a man who maintains it. I came back about a fortnight later to take some more photos and the site had been repainted entirely with new bedding plants. His wife told me that the Council gave her husband paint to do it up. This tells me that the green areas are no different from the areas where the statues are: they’re focal points for a type of community that arises from Irish Catholicism.

When the people of what was Fatima Mansions were moving back into their new apartments and houses, the old statue of Our Lady of Fatima, having been broken on its removal, was replaced. To me, at this stage the new statue has not been placed anywhere within the new Reuben Street area although when I asked the development workers there in 2010, they said a consultation process was to take place about where it would go. (EDIT: a similar situation arose during the renovation of O’Rahilly buildings in Ringsend but this is outside the scope of my work).

I was going to ask, why do people maintain them still?

In many cases they are not maintained on a very regular basis, particularly the later concrete ones e.g. Walkinstown. It is only in particular locations that these statues are maintained to a high level. When I asked people in interviews why they were maintained or why they themselves made efforts to keep them looking well, they (EDIT: often shrugged and) could not tell me. This is another outcome of my work: the relative silence about these statues. Following the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports on sexual abuse I heard no one call for these statues to be taken down or for the space to be ‘reclaimed’ for (EDIT: some normatively-construed) public. In fact, only last month the Council paid for a new sign to be erected at the green space opposite St Lukes in Drumcondra, and it is now designated as Our Lady’s Park. Those who live near them but do not maintain them show no disdain for them. Additionally, and this is most significant, there’s a kind of official silence about them. Dublin City Council maintains a database of public art and statuary across the city area. Not a single one of these Marian or Sacred Heart statues is catalogued in the database. Go to a book on Dublin’s heritage, academic or popular, (EDIT: your Pat Liddy’s or so on) and you’ll see no mention of Marian statues.

Correspondence from Dublin City Council Parks Dept about the new name given at Drumcondra.

Have you found any evidence of these statues being targetted in recent times?

I have only found one instance of a statue being defaced and that is a minor piece of graffiti on the covered statue on Foley street. I think I have more work to do – but not for the doctoral research – on why this relative silence persists. All I know is that they exist on ground that would generally be considered public ground but yet are never contested as objects of devotion that has supposedly been privatised. In many cases, these statues were paid for by Catholics but no formal permission was ever sought for their erection. (EDIT: I spent a week in 2010 going through 20 years of Council minutes.) I have to ask why this is the case? Given that fewer people are now practicising Catholics, should they be reclaimed? What makes them part of Dublin’s ‘heritage’?


EDIT: here’s a link to my iterative map of statues in Dublin