The Liberties’ Heads tell us more about our recent past than any trawl through the newspapers or Reeling in the Years. So claims Anarchaeologist.
The Liberties’ Heads, a collection of busts mounted high on the columns of St. Catherine’s Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, tell us of a different past, one as valid and as immediate as anything you’ll come across in the academic tomes or more popular publications on ‘Dubalinn’ in the rare auld times.
Few who visit St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church, on Meath Street, are aware that they are being silently observed from above by another young Republican martyr who was executed at the beginning of the 20th century. When the church was being renovated in the 1920s a decision was made to place facial impressions of the country’s litany of saints at the base of each of the plaster ribs extending up to the ceiling.
They’re all there; St. Paddy, St. Brigid and all the rest of them. Yet when it came to St. Kevin of Glendalough they couldn’t find a suitable image of the man — by all accounts a notorious misogynist — to put up on the wall with his peers.
Fortunately there had been a death mask of Kevin Barry made after his appointment with the hangman which provided a suitable compromise. He’s the one without the beard.
What are we to make of this? Does it point to a subversive republican past in the parish, one which has entered the popular imagination through songs such as I Remember Dublin City in the Rare Old Times which namechecks ‘the rebel Liberties’? Does it fuck.
As an enthusiastic adherent of hostalgia (hostility to nostalgia) I see it as an attempt to compensate for the reception which greeted the defeated Citizen Army and Volunteers who were paraded through Thomas Street after 1916. For far from being a hotbed of revolutionary activity, the Liberties housed a good proportion of the city’s Separation Women who were paid off by the government as their men died in great numbers on the Somme and along the shores of Sulva Bay. As recorded on many of the witness statements collected in the 1940s, those marching to Richmond Barracks in Inchicore or indeed to their extra-judicial deaths in Kilmainham Gaol were left in no doubt as they passed through the Liberties as to the unpopularity of their actions.
The Liberties’ 20th century history gets stranger. At the height of the Civil War a dubious body known as the ‘Neutral IRA’ established their headquarters on Thomas Street. The Civil War was a decent scrap this time, brother, evidently, against brother, families torn apart. Yet here in the heart of the Liberties assembled a gang of peacenik do-gooders who set out to break the whole thing up and deny future cultural theorists and other interested parties the opportunity to parse and analyse the whole thing. So, St. Kevin of Mountjoy was put up there to salve the consciences of the good parishioners of St. Catherine’s of Meath Street, where the Prods of course had Robert Emmet in the other St. Catherine’s on Thomas Street.