THE FERMOY TALIBAN

October 07, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Here's an edited version of something I wrote back in 2004. After its publication in the Avondhu newspaper, a local historian in Fermoy told me to 'stick to Mitchelstown' and that I had no right to make any comments about Fermoy. Little could he have guessed that within five years I would write extensively about the history of the town in my book 'Fermoy on the Blackwater,' which I still regard as one of my finest.

It's now 2014. The Fermoy Taliban are still there, unmoved, and unloved.

FOR MONTHS NOW I have remained silent about something that increasingly irritates my sense of what is and is not good art, but not anymore. It’s those monks in Fermoy – what possessed anyone to choose THAT design? If ever I have seen a sculpture designed and approved by a committee then this is it – the ultimate compromise that does not work!

Those who dubbed the monks ‘The Fermoy Taliban’ got it right from day one. The sculptures were certainly not representative of the Cistercian monks that they are supposed to portray. Their style of clothing was clearly not researched and their uninspiring demeanour frightens rather than impresses. It has, sadly, become a parody of Fermoy, something to amuse tourists. Do you remember that town in Ireland with those weird sculptures? Is that how Fermoy wants to be portrayed to visitors?

Indeed, almost everything about the sculptures are wrong. The arms are too short. The waists are in the wrong places. The cross on the book (bible?) was obviously carved as an afterthought (did you ever see a bible with a cross carved in a corner?); the faceless spectres flanking the central figure are more likely to frighten children than generate awe and inspiration from an admiring public. Of course, it’s easier to leave a face hollow than to carve what many sculptors find difficult to do successfully.

Then there’s the lettering of ‘Mainistir Fear Maighe.’ Good sculpture should not have to say what it is, and even the use of the name in the way it is cut into the stone looks daft to anyone who does not know that this is the Irish name of Fermoy, rather than the individuals’ names. Even at that, I’m not going to begin to get into the valid issues stated about the Irish of Fermoy in a letter to the ‘Avondhu’ by Sean O’Murchu, which was published at the time of their erection. All that needs to be said here is that Mainistir Fear Maighe is not the Irish name of Fermoy. It is Mainistir Fir Muighe (literally, 'the monastery of the men of the plain').

Of course, some will argue that this is a modern sculpture and not meant to be an exact or accurate portrayal of the monks who founded Fermoy. They may even argue that this is a good piece of modern art. To make such arguments is to deny common sense and the obvious. Art is art, regardless of the style. Rubbish is still rubbish.

Ken Thompson, who is probably the country’s best and must accomplished stone sculptor (and not living too far from Fermoy), produces exquisite sculpture with clean crisp lettering and considerable attention to detail. I have never known him to produce a piece that has not been thoroughly researched in advance and considered down to the smallest detail. Nor has he produced anything that looks stupid or incongruous.

To see what I mean, visit his memorial to the Air India Disaster on the Mizen Peninsula, or look at the fantastic Patrick he carved for Croagh Patrick. If those are too far away, visit New Square in Mitchelstown to see how a simple idea was turned into something wonderfully subtle that entices the imagination of adults and children alike. Indeed, critics declared Mitchelstown’s ‘Timepiece’ the best new sculpture in Ireland on RTE radio’s ‘Rattlebag’ programme, in December 2001. They did not even mention the ‘Fermoy Taliban’ which has a more prominent position than Mitchelstown's ‘Timepiece'.

There are many other good sculptures around the country. The Phoenix on the way to Cork airport is modern and imaginative, but sadly in the wrong place (it was meant to be in the airport entrance roundabout but had to be moved for air traffic safety reasons). The Irish deer on the Cork to Mallow road is inspirational for its use of an otherwise unremarkable hilltop. I passed it at dusk recently and one could imagine it leaping to life against the glowing evening sky. The emigration sculpture at Cobh is everything that needs to be said about those who left these shores in the hopes of finding a better future.

The regrettable thing about the ‘Fermoy Taliban’ is that they tell us nothing about Fermoy and cast a cold eye on the town of today. I was not surprised when traffic cones were placed on the monks’ heads by locals whose perfect understanding of what the sculptures represented surpassed anything imagined by those who commissioned the piece. A Harry Potter set of triplets, or Taliban? You choose...

Unfortunately, the ‘Fermoy Taliban’ are proof that anonymous committees should wield their responsibilities carefully when appointed to select public sculptures that we the public then have to put up with for the rest of our lives. It could also be argued that the committee showed a lack of sensitivity towards those who worship in Christ Church. The select vestry of the Fermoy Union of Parishes (Church of Ireland) was not consulted. It would have been a courtesy to have done so. Sadly, the opportunity to place a fabulous sculpture in such a great location against Christ Church was lost. Now we have to look on in horror every time we pass one of Fermoy’s finest architectural landmarks, and be distracted by sculptures that are, well, stupid looking. Apart from a member of the committee which put them there, I have yet to meet someone who likes or is willing to defend them. That speaks volumes in itself.


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