Last voyage, from Denis O’Connor, to Grattan Quay, Waterford
At eight meters high, Denis O’Connor’s Turas Set Caithe / Last Journey sculpture on Grattan Quay in Waterford is a must-see. At its base are the rusted links of a corten steel chain that wind into a twisted, shiny line of stainless steel, topped by a tall ship under sail.
“The twisted steel refers to the Three Sisters – the rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir – which flow into Waterford Harbour,” says O’Connor. “And the ship refers to how the port itself has been the point of departure for so many emigrants over the centuries.”
Since its installation in 2010, reaction to Last Journey has generally been very positive, but O’Connor recalls that the original commission was not so simple. “Initially, I proposed to make a sculpture based on a Viking throne,” says O’Connor. “But when I talked about the project with Joe Duffy on the radio, one of the local councilors said it would end up looking like a giant barstool, so we went back to the drawing board after that.
O’Connor compares the research he does on his proposals to an archaeological dig. “I often invented things that everyone forgot,” he says. “As well as Waterford’s association with the Vikings, there was a strong shipbuilding tradition in the town. A Quaker family named the Whites built many ships in Waterford until the middle of the 19th century. But the ship in my sculpture refers to the tall ships that have come to Waterford for a number of events in recent years.
O’Connor made the artwork in the studio in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, UK, which he runs with his partner Bernardine Rutter, an artist specializing in printmaking. “I actually did two pieces based on the tall ships,” he says. “When I showed the second room to Waterford councilors they agreed to buy it as well. It’s set up a bit further along the quays on a roundabout. I’m putting this on six pillars so you can’t miss it.
O’Connor is well established as a sculptor in the UK and has won a number of prestigious public commissions, for pieces such as Privilege in Stoke-on-Trent and Distant Travelers in Staffordshire. But the West Cork man also has a number of plays closer to home, including The Hurlers in Blackpool Bypass and Lost Industries on Leitrim St, Cork.
“The Hurlers was mostly a tribute to Glen Rovers,” he says, “while Lost Industries was inspired by the old textile mills in Pouladuff. The Hurlers are more visible and well maintained. But I’m not sure Lost Industries is in the right place, I would like it to be better maintained.
O’Connor’s public sculptures are often large-scale, but it is a matter of pride that he does them himself whenever possible, rather than entrusting the projects to assistants or casters. He traces his interest in manual labor to his father, who worked as a shoemaker in Millstreet. “I’ve always enjoyed watching him work. I can still imagine that beautiful pair of boots he made for Bob Justice, the baker. I guess that fueled my own interest in doing sculpture.
O’Connor studied at the Limerick School of Art from 1978 to 1982. “I was lucky to have excellent tutors. Tom Fitzgerald was in charge of the sculpting and he was very encouraging. He’s been retired for quite a while now, but he’s still working. He had an exhibition a few months ago at the Limerick City Gallery of Art.
After Limerick, O’Connor continued his studies in Belfast, before moving to Birmingham to complete his master’s degree at the University of Central England. “At that time, in the 1980s, there was a better chance of getting a master’s degree in the UK than in Ireland,” he says.
He remained in the UK to teach, working three days a week as a lecturer in fine art at the University of Derby until his resignation around five years ago. “I missed the paycheck at first,” he says. “One thing about public commissions is that they only pay about the same price as they did twenty years ago, but on the other hand, I’m still busy.”
These days he spends much of each year at his second home in Barna in West Cork, where he is happy to immerse himself in the thriving arts scene. “I’ve always done small pieces for myself, in addition to large commissions, and I’ll be showing a few at Working Artist Studios in Ballydehob this summer. It’s a beautiful space, run by Paul Ó Colmáin and Marie Cullen. They often host poetry readings and music events, and I plan to give a number of workshops and talks while the exhibit is on.