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On a recent Monday morning on O’Connell Street, Pablo Consigliere and Andrea Picco stop to take a photo of the statue of Daniel O’Connell.
“I think it is very beautiful,” says Consigliere, looking up at the grand figure with his bronze cloak and avuncular downward gaze, high above the city’s main thoroughfare on a tiered granite pedestal.
“He represents independence,” says Picco. “He works for the people.”
Consigliere starts to look puzzled. “Maybe it could be a bit more clean,” he says.
There are brown, white and green splotches of dirt and stains visible on the base of the statue and two large black graffiti marks.
A pool of water has gathered on a ledge, and bird droppings have splattered then solidified atop O’Connell’s head and the heads of each of the four winged figures sitting below him: Patriotism, Fidelity, Courage and Eloquence, according to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.
Consigliere points up to one of the winged figures. Her sword is broken off, he says. “The monument is interesting but it needs some maintenance.”
Dublin City Council hasn’t answered a series of questions about cleaning and maintenance of the statues on O’Connell Street, submitted on 16 September, including whether it intends to clean them.
It would cost around €1 million to restore and clean all the statues on O’Connell Street, says Peter McNamara, owner of PMac, a company that specialises in maintaining masonry. “It would be a big job.”
Among the largest statues in the city, the Daniel O’Connell monument was designed by well-known sculptor John Henry Foley and completed in 1883 by his assistant Thomas Brock, according to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.
Above the four winged figures, a bronze frieze of a crowd circles the outside of the pedestal on which O’Connell stands.
In the frieze, the “Central figure of Erin trampling upon chains, points upwards and holds 1829 Act of Catholic Emancipation in her left hand,” says the description.
Erin is gesturing upwards towards O’Connell with the other hand, but today that hand is bandaged up with what looks like masking tape.
That draws the attention of Alice Thompson, who stops up with Mark Pearson in front of the monument.
“We’re just over from Scotland so I don’t know anything about the statue,” says Pearson.
“That one has a missing hand,” says Thompson, pointing up at the female figure.
Both say they think that a statue on the main street of Glasgow or Edinburgh would be kept cleaner than this one.
The bird droppings on the statue’s head look old, says Pearson. “You can see at the top of it that it’s been there for ages.”
In Madrid, the authorities put small pins on the heads of statues to stop birds landing on them and doing their business, said Consigliere, earlier. They often light up important monuments at night too, he says.
Dublin City Council has not responded to questions about how often it cleans the statues on O’Connell Street, what budget it has for that, and if there are any challenges to cleaning them.
Nor has it commented yet as to whether it has any plans to clean the Daniel O’Connell statue.
Dublin City Council is commissioning six new sculptures as part of Sculpture Dublin, but the council has not confirmed if there is a budget in place to maintain them.
Other statues on the street are not much better. Jim Larkin is also totally covered in bird droppings.
A spokesperson for the trade union SIPTU says that it owns the Jim Larkin statue but responsibility for its upkeep and maintenance rests with the council. “And it has been doing this work since it was erected in 1979.”
“In the 19th century Daniel O’Connell was given the name the Liberator by the Irish people and essentially that is what he was seen to have achieved,” says Patrick Geoghegan, professor of history at Trinity College Dublin.
As well as achieving the right to vote for some Catholics, O’Connell was a very successful civil rights campaigner who inspired numerous movements around the world, he says.
“He led the world’s first mass popular, democratic movement,” says Geoghegan. “Completely peaceful. He mobilised the people, took on the British empire, and won.”
O’Connell campaigned against slavery and was a friend and ally of the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. “He was an opponent of slavery and oppression wherever he found it,” says Geoghegan.
“I think we neglect O’Connell perhaps to an extent,” he says. Independence was eventually achieved through violent revolution and some people honoured that tradition over the constitutional approach, he says.
In Geoghegan’s view, the two traditions together culminated in independence. “Really the revolution a hundred years ago wouldn’t have been possible if O’Connell hadn’t led his revolution, peacefully, in the 19th century,” he says.
Social Democrats Councillor Cat O’Driscoll, who is chair of the council’s arts and culture committee, says she wants to see more diversity of people celebrated on the street, and has been campaigning for a statue of Constance Markievicz there.
But there is little point in adding to the public art there if existing works are not going to be maintained. “It becomes invisible if we don’t look after them,” she says.
There shouldn’t be an issue with cleaning statues, O’Driscoll says. “It is the responsibility of Dublin City Council to maintain and look after them … and it should be within our budgets.”
The neglect of the monuments is part of a wider problem: the failure by both local and national governments to invest in O’Connell Street, she says.
“I really don’t think, as a country, we have a vision for it as being our main street,” says O’Driscoll. “We have allowed it to decay and dilapidate.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 2pm on Monday 18 October to correct the number of sculptures being commissioned through Sculpture Dublin. Apologies for the error.]