Beyond the neon runes


Are we ever happy?

Have you ever gone out of your way to buy someone a nice present? I mean, really gone out of your way? As in, spent months researching it online, sent dozens of emails to countless retailers, traipsed round town after town in the vain hope of finding it, and then finally, at the last moment, discovered an obscure American website which stocks it, and paid €100 shipping to make sure it got here in time? I have.

Have you ever sat nervously waiting for the postman to arrive, with just three days until Christmas, and leapt out of your chair when you saw him pull out a large box from the van and head towards your door? And lovingly wrapped said present on Christmas Eve, utterly convinced that it’s recipient would cry tears of joy upon opening it the next morning? I have.

Do you know what I got in return? How my effort, my consideration and love, was rewarded? With: “What did you get me that for? Sure, I’ll never use that.” That gift, which I’d sweated blood to procure, was casually discarded to one side, shoved back under the tree like a dirty sock. And, true to her word, it wasn’t ever used, it’s still gathering dust somewhere, a bitter reminder of how ungrateful people can be at times.

I was reminded of that present this week, of the energy spent getting it, and the lukewarm reaction that greeted it. I was reminded of the crushing disappointment which comes with expressing deep gratitude to a loved one and having it thrown back in your face. And I was reminded of how this most peculiar trait, this refusal to mince your words even when someone’s feelings are laid bare, is uncommonly prevalent among Irish people.

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The statues. The bloody statues. One of an iconic rugby hero, a man whose loss is still felt throughout county, province and country. The other of a emigrant son whose exploits across the water made him seem more theirs than ours. Both were unveiled within a couple of days of one another, one on each side of the river, two very different characters immortalised in time for the people of the place that made them.

But no sooner had the first rains fell upon these carefully crafted structures than the moaning began.

Let’s start with the Axel Foley one. Now I’ll admit I was far from blown away when I first saw the tribute to the former Munster coach on Clancy’s Strand. It didn’t immediately strike me as having any resemblance to the man it was meant to portray. It appeared to be a crude impersonation of the famous number eight, a kitsch piece of art entirely out of keeping with Foley’s legacy. But then I looked through the pictures that accompanied its unveiling, the ones with Anthony’s family in attendance, his wife, Olive, his sons, Tony and Dan, his parents, his sisters.

They looked so proud, proud not only of the man they knew and loved, but of the honour bestowed upon him by the people of Limerick. They weren’t quibbling about the likeness, weren’t pointing out physical inaccuracies, they understood that this was about more than a sculpture, more than aesthetics, that it was about the man himself, and that the memorial could have been nothing more than a length of wood with the initials ‘AF’ carved into it and it still would have meant the world.

And yet, while the Foley family reflected upon all that had happened to them in the past twelve months, bittersweet pride perhaps replacing the grief for just one day, the complaints began. And I was among those complaining, there’s no point in me denying it. I added to the clamour, questioned the efforts of the artist responsible for the tribute, and helped to ruin what should have been a special moment for those who mattered most. We should be above those kind of knee-jerk reactions, be more sensitive in situations like this, but for some reason we’re not.

But if the Anthony Foley memorial was unveiled to mixed reviews, that was nothing compared to how Limerick’s tribute to another recently passed native was received. The torrent of abuse that accompanied the Terry Wogan statue was quite shocking. Yes, a lot of it was in good humour, with some of the puns and witticisms of a standard which even Terry himself would have been proud of, but at some point, you have to draw a line.

What really disappointed was the interjection of several local politicians, people gauging public reaction, seeing which way the wind was blowing, and then sticking the boot in with unnecessary force. Why do this? Why try and score points off something as innocuous as a statue? Personally, I really like the Wogan statue, I think it’s quirky, a little off-kilter. If I didn’t know it was supposed to be Sir Terry would I have recognised him? Maybe not. But that’s not really the point. Because we do know it’s supposed to be him, and from now on every time we see it we’ll think of him.

And then there’s the people who spent months crafting these icons, poured their heart and soul into these projects, and received little more than derision and scorn for their efforts. You could argue that they’re getting well paid for their work, but very few artists do it for the money. It’s a difficult thing to do, to create a body of work and then put it out there for public consumption. I’m not suggesting they are immune from criticism, but again, some of the vitriol has been over the top, hurtful comments which could easily derail the careers of the people responsible for these creations.

I doubt I’ll have changed anyone’s opinion on these two memorials. Your thoughts, I’m sure, were set in stone the minute you laid eyes on them. Everyone has different tastes, some more than others. But it’d be great if, from now on, rather than moan and make crass jokes, we chose to hold our counsel, to appreciate the effort involved and the love which has gone into making these works. And if, instead of saying “he should be thinner, he should fatter,” we just remembered the men in question and all they have done for the city and county of Limerick.