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Beneath the railway bridge that cuts across Upper Erne Street and links the Dart stations at Pearse Street and Grand Canal Dock sits a small sculpture of a rat.
Perched on a square platform with its long tail curved in an s-shape, the Kilkenny limestone figure is nestled in a corner near one of the pedestrian archways that leads under the bridge.
The bridge, which is also limestone, was built around 1833. The rat is much newer.
Its surface gives no hint as to its origins. There’s no signature or initials or even a date.
Images from Google Street View show that the corner where it sits was empty back in September 2014.
But when the next set of images were taken in July 2017, there it was – curled up and blending into the ashlar.
For years it was alone. Then in December 2022, the stony critter was joined by a second character: a cat.
Positioned on the opposite side of the street, by Erne Terrace, it observed the rat as if preparing to pounce on its prey.
Like its neighbour, the cat bore no marker. But its age offered a clue that its creator was likely local.
The Friendly Neighbourhood Rodent
The rat appeared about six years ago, says David Mitchell, a resident of Upper Erne Street. “I think we all came across it and were wondering about it for a while.”
Its origins flummoxed many of the residents for several years, says Mitchell, standing just outside his home on his front step.
It was only when new neighbours moved in, that one took it upon himself to search out the creator, he says. “He tracked him down by talking to the hairdressers around the corner.”
Discovering the provenance of the statue created a bond between many of the residents of Erne Street and the adjacent terrace, Mitchell says. It became the local secret.
“It had a cascading effect, which brought people together who hadn’t really known each other before,” he says.
A Feline Friend
Both the cat and the mouse were made not far from where they now sit, in a studio decorated with abstract and figurative sculptures.
On the shelves and the floors are dark green Connemara marble stones, broken pieces of alabaster and slabs of Kilkenny limestone.
At a wooden desk, he carves and chisels away at his creations, using angle grinders, straight grinders, pencil-like tungsten scribes, and diamond-coated rifflers for filing.
His cat was first prototyped in styrofoam, before a final version was moulded from clay. It had to fit on the opposite corner of the bridge.
The cat’s eyes are wide open, its chin rests on the stone platform as if about to spring.
The artist behind the sculptures didn’t want his name published as neither of the pieces on the street was installed with permission from the council.
Betty Ashe, a local activist and resident, said that a couple of years ago, after the rat was installed, the artist and some of his neighbours met up to have drinks over Christmas.
“A lad who lives around the corner had a cat, and it was his pride and joy, and it was suggested he do a cat,” she says.
“It was one of these ridiculous things and then it became a reality,” Ashe says.
The cat was eventually dubbed Ernie, says John Devlin, who lives around the corner on Erne Terrace. “That’s our cat.”
Whereas the rat was a solitary act of guerrilla sculpting, installing Ernie became a community project.
The artist wanted to get his neighbours involved and feeling positive about their new neighbour, says Mitchell.
“He was talking with everyone in the area to see if they were happy with this,” Mitchell says. When it came time to install it, the artist had the idea of an inscription, says Mitchell.
Residents stamped their names and ages on a flattened sheet of roofing lead, says Ashe. “He printed all of the names, and some of the kids did their own.”
They also stamped on it the price of a pint of Guinness at the time, and of a 50g pouch of tobacco, a litre of milk and a loaf of bread, Ashe says. “It was a time capsule, and he rolled that up and put it underneath.”
The exterior of the roll was inscribed with the words “read me”. Inside, at the top of the time capsule, it reads: “Ernie, the Erne St. Cat, under the care of various residents past and present of Erne St. Upper and Erne Terr. Rear.”
While unauthorised, in a way, the creation of the two sculptures appear to sit well with the city council’s aspirations for public art in the city.
In February 2020, before the council launched its Sculpture Dublin project, which saw six sculptures commissioned for the city, Arts Officer Ray Yeates said the council’s aim was to focus on art that was relevant to local areas and not “parachuted in”.
During an independent survey carried out at the close of the project, 73 percent of people expressed their support for public involvement in the decision-making process around public art.
From his doorstep on the rear terrace, Rory O’Neill can see the cat.
Back in late 2022, also saw a pair of men out in high-vis jackets installing Ernie into the ground, he says.
It has all added a nice bit of local character to the spot, he says. “It’s an area that can be rough, but when you have people stopping by to look at it, and to have it there, it’s really nice.”
Ashe says it is wonderful to have an accomplished sculptor who contributed this to their neighbourhood. “Mainly kids passing by are the first ones to notice it.”
Mitchell says he and his family got their own cats after Ernie was put in his place. “I think it’s had a surprising effect on us all. It’s a conversation piece, just like how the rat first brought us all together.”
ah they’re lovely! It’s a no brainer to keep them.
Hope dcc appreciate the locals love for them and don’t go making a mess with any needless bureaucracy.
Brilliant article and great to see my friend from years ago Betty Ashe still involved in a community she has served so well
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