Why the elongated face? Artist pilloried after creating half-man, half-horse sculpture | Ireland

In Irish mythology, a púca is a mischievous, shape-shifting spirit that can take the form of a horse and lure unwary travelers onto its back for a wild ride.

Aidan Harte knows how it feels. Eighteen months ago the sculptor was commissioned to create a 2 meter high bronze statue of a púca for the town square in Ennistymon, County Clare.

What followed was a wild gallop in a surreal controversy over the role of public art in Ireland that may only now be coming to an end.

Along the way, Harte found himself stalked on social media, pilloried from the pulpit, championed by celebrities and credited as the unwitting inspiration for a music video featuring a mock execution.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” Harte, 43, said. “The púca is like the English puck playing tricks. This story kept getting weirder and weirder until I wondered if there was some of its magic.

Aidan Harte next to his Púca statue in his Dublin studio. Photography: Aidan Harte

Clare County Council decided in 2020 to spend €30,000 (£25,400) on a sculpture striking enough to attract tourists to Ennistymon, a town near the Atlantic coast. Harte won the tender and in early 2021 began work at his Dublin studio on what was to be The Púca of Ennistymon.

For the artist, who had studied in Florence, it was a dream work – greater in size and importance than anything he had done before.

Harte sculpted the head and torso of a horse on human legs. “A lot of public art in Ireland is abstract and corporate – nothing that would upset anyone. It was a full-blooded depiction of one of the great forgotten figures of Irish folklore,” he said.

He sought to convey ambiguity, he said. “Fairies are neither good nor bad, they are something in between. The púca is a creature of chaos. It’s this feeling of uneasiness, of the unexpected that I wanted to give to the sculpture.

Harte felt a sense of unease and unexpectedness in April 2021 when photographs of the sculpture’s clay mold were leaked to residents of Ennistymon and sparked a rapid excoriation on social media. The sculpture has been called ugly, scary and hideous. The council was so surprised that they told Harte to suspend work.

When the parish priest of Ennistymon, Father Willie Cummins, denounced the sculpture as “sinister” from his pulpit, the story was picked up by the Irish media.

“Journalists followed suit. In a moment of weakness I said it was ‘Father Ted stuff’,” said Harte, who compared the argument to an episode of the fictional Priests on the Channel 4 sitcom. never let up.”

The sculpture of Aidan Harte de la Púca
Aidan Harte de la Púca’s sculpture – described as “sinister” by a priest.

Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the sculpture – “Clare’s fright” – which, without leaving her studio, spawned editorials, essays, tributes and denunciations.

A man posted a selfie in which he was dressed as a druid and holding a sign saying “Down with this stuff”, a quote from Father Ted. An artist painted a mural depicting the sculpture with a howling wolf, a fairy and a UFO.

A representative from a tourist attraction in County Monaghan, 150 miles from Clare, lobbied Harte for the sculpture by writing a fictional short story titled I Púca.

A songwriter called Frank Callery composed a song praising the sculpture, but another composer – Enda Haran – wrote a riposte that considered blowing it up. “Your naughty horse can kiss my ‘orse,” one line said.

“It was basically a bit crazy with a serious upside in that no one was consulted,” Haran said. “It had nothing to do with religion or the local priest.”

A band calling themselves The Burning Pitchforks made a video performing the song, which included a mock execution by someone disguised as a horse.

Reeling from the controversy, the council hired Connect the Dots, a community engagement firm based in Philadelphia and Dublin, to consult with Ennistymon residents.

In a poll that drew 674 responses, 370, or 55%, opposed the púca. The report noted at least 79 mentions of “ugly”, 10 mentions of “scary”, 11 mentions of “hideous” and eight mentions of “horror”. Suggestions for alternate locations included “space near Pluto” and “the bottom of the ocean”.

Of the 291, or 44%, who favored the sculpture, there was praise for its sense of fun and imagination.

“Technically stunning, incredible craftsmanship and thematically rich,” said one. “Summarizes the essence of the Púca legend beautifully – he’s not meant to be a cuddly character,” said another. Celebrities such as Dara Ó Briain, Imelda May and Chris O’Dowd tweeted their support.

In January the council decided that it would not bring the sculpture to Ennistymon. “Have we really reached the stage where even the old Púca has to be cancelled? lamented Diarmaid Ferriter, a historian, in the Irish Times.

Last week, however, the council announced it had found a home at the Michael Cusack Center – named after a founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association – in the village of Carron, 21km east of Ennistymon .

The Michael Cusack Center in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland.
The Michael Cusack Center in the Burren, County Clare. Photography: Brian Morrison/Michael Cusack Center

“It took a long time not to get very far,” Harte said. “I am delighted. It is important that he goes somewhere where he is loved.

A documentary filmmaker plans to make a movie and a cultural historian studies the dispute, but Harte wonders if anyone will ever understand it all.

The sculpture is cast in metal and will be assembled and polished before moving to Carron in June. Harte hopes the visitors will be bold enough to rub the Púca’s toe.

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