I was surprised and saddened to read the headline in the Sunday Times of 23rd August ‘Councillor sees importance of booing Shackleton’ and the report which followed in which a local Councillor criticised the decision to erect a statue in Athy to Ernest Shackleton.
Arguments surrounding the erection of a statue to the Kilkea-born Antarctic explorer, whose life and career have been celebrated each October bank holiday weekend for the past 14 years during the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, reminds me of the controversial debate which took place 80 years ago when a memorial was agreed to be erected in the GPO Dublin in memory of those who fought in the 1916 Rising.
The De Valera government commissioned a statue of Cú Chulainn, claiming that the representation of his death would provide a suitable symbol for the sacrifices of 1916. The Fine Gael opposition thought otherwise and the radical newspaper ‘United Ireland’ in its edition of 20th April 1935 put forward Fionn Mac Cumhail as a more appropriate figure on the basis that ‘Cú Chulainn as champion of Ulster was not a true a Gael as Fionn Mac Cumhail’.
Public monuments are a means of expressing a distinctive national identity. In the past such monuments have represented cultural and political concepts which emerge from an identity which was firmly linked with Catholic heritage and an emerging, if not always consistent, nationalist attitude.
Conflicting attitudes to public monuments provide an indication of the strength of nationalist feeling or sometimes the fluid strength of such nationalism if one is to consider the case of the Parnell monument erected in Dublin’s O’Connell Street after Parnell’s death. The laying of the foundation stone for the Parnell monument was in 1899 the scene of extraordinary rowdy scenes involving anti-Parnellites and supporters of Parnell. This was a man who had united a country behind the Irish Parliamentary party and had given the Irish people a voice which it had not enjoyed since the days of Daniel O’Connell. The objectors to the Parnell monument eventually withdrew, perhaps realising that the monument represented a national aspiration which all shared.
We in Athy have in the recent past, in keeping with the public’s growing interest in Ireland’s fight for freedom, erected a monument to persons whose methods found favour with the more advanced nationalist traditions of their day. The monument in question, located in Emily Square, commemorates the United Irishmen and those local men and women who suffered during the 1798 Rebellion.
Similarly some few years previously we commemorated the men from Athy and district who fought in World War I. In doing so we were reconciling service in the Great War with the political reality of an independent Ireland - thereby helping to dispel the notion that the Athy men who fought in the war were not ‘true’ Irishmen.
For too long we Irish have firmly linked our national identity with Catholic heritage and militaristic traditions. I am critical of narrow minded concepts of Irishness, believing that being Irish requires us to accept outside influences and to discard the narrow minded concepts which have prevailed in the past. It is wrong to believe that the only ‘true’ Irishmen are those who fought for Irish independence or who profess the Catholic faith.
Public monuments articulate an emerging national identity and part of that identity is not just Catholic, Gaelic and the struggle for Irish freedom, but also includes the many different voices which may seldom if ever be raised in support of those traditional values which many of us hold dear.
A monument to Ernest Shackleton, world famous explorer, a man born within a few miles of Athy, whose exploits are the subject each year of the Shackleton Autumn School here in Athy, can be a worthy addition to the public sculpture of our ancient town. It will help to highlight the town’s museum which we plan to extend in the near future to become an accredited museum highlighting the story of the world’s most famous Antarctic explorer.
The planned regeneration of Athy which will be the subject of a redevelopment plan now in the final stages of preparation by Shannon International Development Consultants will impinge not just on the economic revival of the town but will also impact on the cultural and social life of the town. We should not adopt a negative attitude to the proposed statue or to any project, no matter how small, which will be part of the attempt to revive the fortunes of our town.