John Behan: the people’s sculptor

John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street by Adrian Frazier (The Lilliput Press)

John Behan. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

John Behan. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

STARTING IN the early seventies and continuing for about 20 years, there was a continuous migration into Galway of extraordinary “blow ins” whose genius and drive transfigured the cultural life of the city.

People like Garry Hynes, Ollie Jennings, Pádraic Breatnach, Fred Johnston, Judy Greene, Hugh McCormack, Jessie Lendennie, Gerry Dawe among others were the trail blazers who brought a new life and vigour with them which transposed into street, literary, and arts, and engendered a generation of poets, artists, crafts people which gave Galway a new and innovative creative vitality it had not had before.

With them there were a significant number of others who also made their mark in a quieter, but nonetheless effective way - Kevin Higgins, Susan Du Millar Mars, Charlie Byrne, Vinnie Browne, Miriam Allen, and Lelia Doolan. There were also many others who may have made no immediate mark but whose presence continues to add status to Galway’s literary and artistic credentials.

In 1969, The Kenny Art Gallery hosted an exhibition of Dublin sculptors which in itself was an innovation as in 1969 sculpture was something you saw in churches or in town squares. The idea that you could take a piece of sculpture home with you and enjoy it in the same way as you would a painting on the wall was anathema. Not surprisingly, very few customers attended the opening night and those that did were somewhat miffed when they discovered there were no “pictures” on the gallery wall. There were no sales that night.

One of the sculptors who contributed to that exhibition was John Behan. After the desultory crowd left the gallery, Behan and Tom Kenny were alone and disappointed at the lack of red dots. However, both were excited as they realised that, while the show was hardly a commercial success, the night was extremely important and successful in that, by opening the first show ever of sculpture to be held outside of Dublin, they were sowing seeds.

And productive seeds they turned out to be. Over the next decade John was to have three solo exhibitions in Kenny, two of which sold extremely well, and the other was as close to a sell out as a sculpture exhibition can be. With that, Behan was teaching in the art department of the then Regional Technical College, where one of his pupils was John Coll, today a nationally renowned sculptor. In 1980 Behan moved to Galway and has become a much loved citizen of our city.

All this and more is documented in Adrian Frazier’s excellent memoir John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street (The Lilliput Press ). Frazier had moved to Galway in the late nineties to direct MA courses in creative writing, publishing, and drama in NUIG. As his uncle, Richard Frazier was a sculptor, it is not surprising that Frazier would meet Behan and as both loved conversation and books, they were soon friends enjoying long discussions about art and literature.

It is not surprising then that this memoir is basically a highly enthusiastic and personal conversation. Frazier begins by discussing his own experience of buying a Behan piece, not just for himself but also for his father-in-law, and then hints at how these sculptures affect their own personal lives. This in itself is revelatory of Behan’s artistic power in that a piece of his is not just something you enhance our sitting room with, it becomes part of your personal makeup as well.

As the memoir progresses, Frazier’s academic acumen takes over and there are wonderful chapters on Behan’s early life as a sculpture, and a particularly excellent one on the Dublin artistic scene during the sixties, before following on with his Galway sojourn, his travels abroad, and his monumental pieces.

John Behan is the quintessential Renaissance man. His conversation is constantly peppered with quotations from Yeats, Joyce, Kavanagh, and Heaney. His sculptor is of the people, for the people and, with himself as their artistic spokesman, by the people. It is only fitting that his life and work should be celebrated with such an informative and insightful memoir as this.


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