By Jack Quin
The Irish sculptor Oliver Sheppard’s Sleeping Nymph (1918) has been on display in the Long Room since September, as part of the exhibition ‘Writing Art in Ireland, 1890–1930’. Drawn from Trinity College Dublin’s own art collections, Sheppard’s small marble relief is something of a sculpture within a sculpture. The main subject is a female nude lying sleeping. But carved in the right-hand corner is a barely discernible cherub or infant. Like the sculptor’s Roisin Dubh memorial to the poet James Clarence Mangan in Stephen’s Green, a smaller figure incorporated into the piece can be read as some form of ambiguous symbol or allegory relating to the primary subject.
Such suggestive works not only sometimes drew on literary sources but also provoked several notable literary responses. Sheppard’s early statuette Oisin and Niamh (1895) was inspired by W.B. Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), a fact that greatly pleased the poet. His later bronze statue The Death of Cuchulain – itself drawn from Lady Gregory’s portrayal of the hero in Cuchulainn of Muirthelmne (1902) – in turn became the subject of several poems by Yeats, following its erection in the General Post Office in 1935 to commemorate the Easter Rising. Less reverentially, Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938) describes how a character was moved to seize ‘the dying hero by the thighs’ and ‘dash his head against his buttocks, such as they are’.
Presented alongside Sleeping Nymph in the exhibition is a quixotic response to Sheppard’s work by Patrick Pearse, printed in the Gaelic League newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light) in 1906. The revolutionary, sacrificial message of Pearse’s appraisal seems clear. Of one statuette of a mother and child, he asserts: ‘his heart will not falter, he will fight the fight – win it, maybe, or failing gloriously, go serenely to his death. And the Woman of Destiny will wait and watch on.’ As such visual artworks enter into language, their meanings become interpreted and contested. Indeed during the lead up to last year’s centenary commemorations a 1916 Relatives Association urged Dublin City Council to rename the The Spire monument on O’Connell Street An Claidheamh Soluis. Like the symbolist sculpture of Oliver Sheppard, even the austerely abstract Spire sitting opposite the G.P.O. will have its significance written and rewritten.
Jack Quin is a Research Assistant in the School of English, working on the Irish Research Council-funded project ‘W.B. Yeats and the Writing of Art’.