Even before it came to Galway the statue of Sean Pádraic Ó Conaire was causing a stir. As Albert Power carved away in his stone-yard at Berkeley Street, Dublin, word had got out that this was a work of exceptional standards.
Ó Conaire, although his reputation is somewhat diminished today, was regarded at the time as a legend. He had an extraordinary out-pouring of work consisting of 400 short stories, five plays, a novel, and more than 200 essays on various topics, many of which he wrote in Irish, while working in the civil service in London. Yet despite his reputation, and his substantial literary achievement, he made little or no money. He died destitute in the Richmond Hospital, Dublin, on October 6 1928, at 46 years of age.
Seven years after his death Power was commissioned to create a lasting memorial to the writer who had spent his final years in Galway town and county, where he was born, February 28 1882.* As it neared completion many distinguished visitors, including President Éamon de Valera and his daughter, visited the monument in the studio at Berkeley Street. They expressed themselves amazed at the marvellous likeness in limestone; and at the life-like conception of a sculptor who never saw his subject.
Rather alarmingly, some of the distinguished visitors ‘Further expressed a desire that the masterpiece, for such it is, should be retained in the capital. But those who made the work possible are determined that it shall find a permanent home in the capital of the Gaeltacht which Pádraic loved so well, and from which he drew all his inspiration.’ **
Albert Power RHA was an ideal choice for the Ó Conaire monument, which was agreed would be placed at the top of Eyre Square, for maximum exposure. He trained at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art under sculptors John Hughes, Oliver Sheppard and the artist William Orpen, renowned artists at the time. He won practically every prize going, including the national gold medal for the best modelling of a nude figure in Ireland, Scotland and the Channel Islands.
He had a great friend and sponsor in the writer, witty conversationalist, and successful doctor, Oliver St John Gogarty. Famously in 1920, Gogarty asked him to carve a portrait of Terence MacSwiney, then on hunger strike in Brixton gaol, London. Power was smuggled into the prison, did a thumbnail sketch, and from this carved a portrait in the manner of a life mask.***
Holiday in Galway
During Ó Conaire’s time in London (1900-1915 ) he began living with Mary McManus. It is not known whether they were married or not. They had two daughters, Eileen, and Kathleen, and a son Pádraic.
Eileen later became Mrs J Corr, and lived in Waterford. She gave an interview to The Waterford News in June 1935. She remembered her father with affection, and recalled happy days together as a family. “It was in London that he developed his passion for Gaelic life and speech, which made him the most effective teacher in the London Gaelic League.’
He left London in 1914, but “Each year he returned to us on a holiday, always looking his best. In August 1928 we all went on a holiday to Galway, and had a grand time in his own country. I often reminded my father of little incidents during our life in London, which he always heartily enjoyed.” Eileen said that in the same year that she came to Waterford and married, she got a letter from him saying he was to have an operation, and not to worry in the least. Two or three days later she read in the papers that he had died in Richmond Hospital.
But Eileen was one of the visitors to Albert Power’s yard to see the statue of her father nearing completion. She too was impressed at the likeness to her father. “The familiar expression on his face held me. Every time I looked up I saw my father - it was the Pádraic Ó Conaire that I knew.”
Next week: the unveiling by Éamon de Valera, June 9 1935, and the story Padraic would have loved to have written.
NOTES: *Among those who raised money for the commission included Thomas Concannon, Professor Liam Ó Briain, Seán MacGiollarnaith, and Professor Tom Dillon.
** Connacht Tribune, February 23 1935.
*** Now in the Cork Public Museum. Closer to home Power’s altars at Garbally are an eye-catching mixture of coloured marbles. His most famous imaginative piece of sculpture, however, is of a salmon swimming up-stream carved from Connemara marble. This can be enjoyed at the National Gallery of Ireland (Síghle Breathnach-Lynch, Dictionary of Irish Biography ). The Ó Conaire statue is not made from Rosmuc limestone, as is commonly said, but from the limestone quarry at Durrow.