Ireland's new art gallery: the highway

TRALEE, Ireland — One day some years ago, when traveling along a road near Killarney in County Kerry, Ann Lane came across what she described as a “magnificent sight.” On top of a rocky embankment a white horse with a unicorn helmet reared up on its hind legs, as if looking out over the soft, heather-clad mountains.

It was a life-size sculpture, known as the “Capall Mor,” or ‘Big Horse.”

Thus began Lane's fascination with the hundreds of figures and statues that have appeared along Ireland’s highways and byways during the upgrading of the country’s road network in the last two decades. The phenomenon stems from a government mandate that a fraction of road-building budgets should be devoted to the placing of art pieces along the expanding road system. A public servant based in Dublin, Lane began taking note of other such art work, much of it modernistic, on stretches of road in every county she passed through on journeys out of the capital. Last year 63-year-old Lane, who currently works as an aide in the Irish parliament to independent Senator Ivana Bacik, decided to chronicle all the worthwhile roadside art she could locate. She began making forays into the countryside on her Honda 1785 motorbike, pulling up only to photograph sculptures on the banks of newly built by-passes and motorways.

“Sometimes I would travel 700 or 800 miles in a weekend,” she said. “So far I have photographed 650 pieces and driven 13,800 miles, and probably have another thousand to go.”

Photographing the sculptures as traffic sped by at 75 miles an hour (Ireland’s motorway speed limit), or more, posed obvious problems.

“I didn't mind the climbing of banks, but running across motorways is hazardous to one's health!” Lane remarked with a laugh.

Her quest is nearing completion and the unique ccollection of road art photographs will be published in book form in 2010.

“The ‘Capall Mor’ is the piece that got me hooked in the beginning,” she said. “I thought it was absolutely magnificent and I wanted to see more.”

Located at Clonkeen on the N22 national roadway from Tralee to Cork City, the figure is made from ferro-cement over a steel infrastructure and depicts a typical Celtic war horse with broken chains around its front legs signifying freedom. It was sculpted by Tighe O’Donoghue Ross, a New York-born resident of Kerry who is the hereditary Chief of Loch Lein, a Gaelic title of great antiquity. He and his son, Eoghan, were commissioned to place art works along a stretch of the N22 now known as “The Sculpture Road to Killarney.”

When making her photographic record, Lane ignored the sometimes mawkish religious statues and busts of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy that can be found in towns and village here and there in Ireland. “I also avoided most of the famine memorials with their droopy people,” she said, referring to the iconic sculptures of downtrodden rag-clad family groups meant to depict Irish people during the 19th-century potato famine.

Ireland’s current famine in public funds for new roads and other projects means that the good time for roadside artists is likely coming to an end. Some members of the Limerick County Council, one the country’s biggest local authorities, are objecting to the spending of 110,000 euros ($157,000) earmarked for roadside art on the new M7 Limerick to Nenagh motorway.

Councilor Patrick O’Dovonan wrote to colleagues asking them to block the tender process for artists so the money could be spent on more practical things. Council transport official Paul Crowe explained that the current allocation of money cannot be redirected for other purposes. “We either use it or lose it,” he said.

But the way the Irish economy is doing, few new allocations will be made, and Ann Lane will find new roadside art increasingly difficult to find.