Photos by Conal Thomas

The limestone panels at 23 Kildare Street show figures hard at work. One muscular worker hammers, another chisels. Around the corner, more stone figures represent industries thriving under the fledgling Irish state.

Commissioned for the Department of Industry and Commerce during the Second World War, they’re the work of Irish sculptor Gabriel Hayes.

Her work shows a clear affinity to socialist realism, and was influenced by the works of Yugoslav sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, whose own story runs through Vienna and Zagreb, and touches W.B. Yeats, the Central Bank of Ireland, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

After a competition, architect J.R. Boyd Barrett was chosen to lead the project to design the six-storey Art Deco building. Construction began in 1939.

The result “has been described as displaying an unusually successful blend of Classical and contemporary Art Deco characteristics”, wrote Brian McCabe, on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage website.

“Overall, the cleanly-defined articulation and bold stylisation are reminiscent of New York’s interwar architecture,” McCabe wrote.

The fact that Irish politicians of the day erected “such a large and costly edifice was an act of admirable determination”, wrote architect Raymund Ryan, in a 1992 pamphlet for the Office of Public Works about the building.

“Unlike Czechoslovakia and Catalonia, post-independence Ireland was not particularly interested in forwarding architecture or urban design as emblems of its new found freedoms,” Ryan wrote.

If the new department building was unusual for its time so, too, was the depiction of workers wrapped around its side.

Carved in striking poses that mirror the angular men and women of Soviet propaganda, the limestone figures are the work of Irish sculptor Gabriel Hayes (1909-1978).

Born in Co. Kildare, she studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.

Hayes chiselled these images of industry in early 1942, having won a competition to design the panels. In that era, a woman – a mother no less! – scaling scaffolding to carve the sculpture into the side of the building was a matter of curiosity for journalists, writes Donal Fallon on the Come Here to Me! blog.

On one panel, attached to the ministerial balcony facing onto Kildare Street, the Celtic God Lugh releases a flight of aeroplanes, representing Ireland’s burgeoning aviation sector. Collinstown Airport, now Dublin Airport, had opened two years earlier.

Other panels show manufacturing sectors: tobacco, pottery, shoemaking and spinning. One depicts the Shannon hydroelectric scheme, another the cement industry.

Above these figures at work, there are carved keystones to represent Éire and St Brendan the Navigator.

With thick heavy-set frames, Hayes’ figures of industry are stark and animated. Their flat graphic qualities have a sense of movement about them.

Lisa Cassidy, on her blog Built Dublin, writes that there’s something “strikingly impassive about their faces, an intense physical and mental dedication to work. Not one of them looks like they’d ever complain or cause trouble.”

“It’s a magnificent propaganda piece for the nascent modern Ireland, everyone concentrating on their task and all in it together,” says Cassidy.

In its representations of workers and labour, Hayes’ carvings  are “very much in the vein of Art Deco architectural carving work”, Dublin City Council Heritage Officer Charles Duggan said by email.

“Interestingly if you look at the representation of work and labour taking the Sunlight Chamber friezes (on Essex Quay) from the early 20th century and these more heroic, almost graphic representations, the contrast is something to consider,” says Duggan.

It was a celebrated Croatian sculptor who perhaps had the most impact on Hayes’ carvings.

Professor Paula Murphy of University College Dublin – who describes Hayes’ figures as being “carved in a vigorous socialist-realist style” – notes that Hayes was interested in the work of Croatian sculptor and architect Ivan Mestrovic.

Born in 1883, Mestrovic studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and is best known for his numerous public commissions in Zagreb, which was in Yugoslavia when he moved there in 1919, but has since become the capital of now-independent Croatia.

Mestrovic “worked in a style that was basically classical but furnished with a superficial air of modernity”, according to art historian Ian Chilvers, writing in Oxford’s Concise Dictionary of Art & Artists.

In addition to his Auguste Rodin-inspired Well of Life (1905) in Zagreb, Mestrovic is noted for expressing his ardent patriotism through art. His enormous mausoleum dedicated to the Unknown Solider in Belgrade is a prime example, says Chilvers.

At one point, if W.B. Yeats had had the right address for Mestrovic, the Croat’s work could have featured on Irish coinage.

In 1926, Yeats chaired a committee tasked with commissioning designs for the coinage of the fledgling Irish state. He approached Mestrovic.

“Carl Milles and Ivan Mestrovic, sculptor and medallist, have expressed in their work a violent rhythmical energy unknown to past ages, and seem to many the foremost sculptors of our day,” wrote Yeats in a 1928 report.

Image courtesy of Central Bank of Ireland

The committee wrote to both, as well as American sculptor James Earle Fraser, best known for his End of the Line, and Italian sculptor Publio Morbiducci, who designed coins for Benito Mussolini’s fascist government.

Fraser refused the committee’s request. By the time Mestrovic replied it was too late.

“We had written to a wrong address,” wrote Yeats. “[…] Our letter took some time reaching him. He made one magnificent design and, on discovering that the date had passed (for the competition), gave it to the Irish Free State with great generosity.”

This design, based on the Dalway Harp, was adopted by the Central Bank of Ireland as its seal in 1965.

In 2007, a €15 silver “Mestrovic Coin” was jointly issued by the Central Bank and the Croatian National Bank, finally realising the sculptor’s design as he originally intended.

Mestrovic – described in Yeats’ 1928 report as the “Serbian [sic] shepherd-sculptor” – moved to the United States in 1947, where he became the first artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Since his death in 1962, “the great reputation he enjoyed in his life has declined … the rhetoric of his large-scale works now seeming rather ponderous”, notes art historian Chilvers.

Mestrovic’s Well of Life sculpture in Zagreb – as well as his 1927 coin design – bear a striking similarity to Hayes’ own carvings.

In her 2009 lecture “Gabriel Hayes: an Irish sculptor” UCD’s Murphy noted that, in her carvings of industry, Hayes’ “representation of the male worker … is a vigorous one … squared, rugged and promoting physical strength”.

Hayes – best known for her 1p and 2p coin designs – was influenced by American socialist-realist art and Italian Futurism as well, notes Murphy.

That Gabriel Hayes employed socialist realism in her work to promote Irish industry might suggest political motivation. “But Hayes wasn’t driven by agenda either political or religious,” said Murphy.

Unlike Ivan Mestrovic, who developed strong nationalist interpretations of Serbian history, says Central Bank archivist Ross Higgins. “Most of his big pieces were (based) around the restoration of Serb glory.”

Once Hayes finished her carvings, there was no critical appraisal of them in the years that followed, said UCD’s Murphy in 2009.

Yet, she adds, they are “unique in sculpture in Ireland”.

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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