Once you notice her, you’ll see her everywhere. Resplendent in white, reclining casually with cloth covering her more offensive bits, she looks down on the streets of Dublin with a sort of disinterest that implies superior concerns. She’s been called many things, from prostitute to Virgin Mary, and she’s been ‘the white lady’ of many areas, from Cabra to Walkinstown. She’s the Lady On The Rock, and if you haven’t seen her, she’s seen you. She’s a windowsill statue, and she has spread at an alarming rate, beginning with her introduction to Dublin Mouldings, a supplier of fireplaces and plasterworks located on Parnell Street on the north side of the city. If you’re in town and you want to see her in her natural environment, the closest colonies are probably around there, or in the Liberties.
She is to art as Fields of Athenry remixes are to music. No experts love it or even pay attention to it. It’s not part of any canon someone might try to claim. But it exists, and it’s extremely popular, if quite localised.
Californian artist Jim Ricks has proposed making dozens of versions of the Lady On The Rock to dot public parks around the city, from Merrion Square all the way out to Beaumont on the northside and Dun Laoghaire on the more salubrious, statue-free southside. He has only been in Dublin for around a year after half a decade on a residency in the Burren, he tells me in his studio in Temple Bar, but the Lady caught his eye immediately.
“I live near Meath Street so it’s just kind of around,” he says. “They come in groups, they’re rarely alone. It is kind of interesting. What do people consider art in their everyday lives, people who aren’t experts in art? The statue kind of becomes the answer. It appears throughout Dublin.” And it’s true, when you think about it. The Lady On The Rock isn’t a response to any trend or movement in art, or even any particularly developed sense of taste, but it’s there, iterated a thousand times, on full display in people’s windows. Surely this, more than a spire or a leafy globe, is the art the public wants?
“I just thought it would be funny, proposing making that the monument of Dublin. Just putting it in a variety of locations so that instead of having various public art pieces around the city there would just be this one, as if the people had voted already on this and this was what was going to happen.”
But who is she? Ask in the pub (or Google it) and you’ll be given a wide variety of responses. She signifies that a house is a brothel. She is evidence that protection dues have been paid to a gang. She shows you where to buy heroin. Jessie Ward O’Sullivan, another Californian transplant who won the Free Your Film contest at 2010’s Darklight festival with a short documentary called ‘Lady On The Rock’, encountered the same sort of thing when she noticed the statue.“I got so many different answers,” she says. “It’s really interesting, people were kind of creating something out of nothing, putting it on this pedestal of significance, when it’s just a piece of plaster.” There is a level of elaborateness to the explanations that is quite surprising when there is, especially since Ward’s film, a readily available ‘right answer’. “My favourite is that it’s for people who have a child in Mountjoy,” she adds, “like a candle in the window.”
It’s interesting, or maybe even embarrassing, that people would see a decorative plaster moulding proliferated across working class areas and immediately presume that it has crime-related connotations. Ricks agrees. “That’s a bit of classism, to be honest, to some degree. People saying, it’s in this working class or underprivileged neighbourhood, therefore it’s gotta be something bad. We don’t understand it, it’s a symbol, it’s a sign.”
“I guess my answer is, I think people make it up as they go along with everything. It’s like how ringforts became fairy forts. It got mythologised and the actually history became lost at one point, so they just make it up as they go along. Adding this extra meaning to it is interesting, but I don’t buy any of it. Someone just made a sculpture of a girl.”
A word-of-mouth explanation that appealed to me personally is that she represents Molly Malone. Poor Molly, too, is pretty broadly considered a prostitute by the person on the street. But there’s no evidence for that. Literally all we know about Molly is that she was a fishmonger who died of a fever, but she became a symbol of Dublin organically. Who’s to say, with that kind of intangible popular appeal, she couldn’t have come up with a 21st century iteration of herself to decorate the mantlepieces and windowsills of the people of Dublin?
When I rang the doorbell of Dublin Mouldings on Parnell Street and asked the proprietor if he would give me a little background he directed me, consistently, to “the website”, by which he must have meant Ward’s film. Ward herself found Dublin Mouldings cagey as well, returning three times until Vincent Doran Sr. wasn’t around so she could get quotes from Vincent Doran Jr. By the time I arrived, it seemed the Dorans were tired of the mystique. “She’s just the Lady On The Rock,” I was told by way of a polite brush-off, as a display model of the statue itself stood frustratingly silent to the left of the doorway I was stuck in.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend on the internet about the article I was researching about, as we vernacularly knew her at that point, the White Lady of Cabra. “I heard they signify brothels,” he said in the chat window. I decided to play along. “Yeah, it turns out 80% of houses in the Liberties are brothels. Pretty much anything not rented to a student or an artist,” I responded. “Worrying, in the sense of how many were trafficked,” he said, bringing an awkward level of conscientiousness to the conversation. I continued anyway: “Houses that have two or three statues are known as ‘double’ or even ‘triple’ brothels.”
The penny drops. “Are you joking?” he asks. I accuse him of classism. He says something telling about the whole situation: “It’s not classism, it’s just some lad told me and I believed him. And then I saw one or two statues and thought ‘huh’.” That’s how myths start.
But as I was told at Dublin Mouldings, she is just the Lady On The Rock. Ward told the story fairly comprehensively in 2010, tracking the original sculptor, the man who made the cast and shop that started selling the statues, but myths persisted anyway. “When I set out to make the film, I didn’t expect to find an answer. I just wanted to explore some of the stories, so it was nice surprise,” she says. “I think Dubliners love having a tall tale, so maybe that’s why they’re not proactive in trying to find out what it really means,” she says.
Ricks agrees. “People are always just looking for an answer. And sometimes the simple answer might not be nearly as interesting. As religion has waned, you have conspiracy theories and ancient aliens and stuff. And those are interesting but, you know, clearly they’re fabricated. But people want that. There’s something really human about it. That’s part of what makes it interesting.”
Jim Ricks’ proposal got passed around online recently, he tells me, spurred by a popular post on Reddit. Surely, though, he doesn’t seriously expect to be allowed to make fifty giant, identical statues of an anonymous woman reclining on a rock, devoid of real relevance to the city aside from its proven popularity?“I don’t know. Maybe not fifty locations. Maybe it could move around the city? I would absolutely love to do it. I love the idea of taking something that’s already distorted and small and then enlarging that. There’s a lot of artists that have worked in that way, like Jeff Koons, taking balloon animals and making them into monumental sculptures. It’s not designed to be a big sculpture and that shows the flaws, which is human and interesting. I think it could be done, it could be made out of plastic and really big and it could be moved to different places. But maybe that’s crazy.”
Ward, for her part, supports Ricks’ proposal: “If you talk to someone who hasn’t heard of it, they have no idea what you’re talking about, but then if you point it out, they start to see it all the time. So maybe if Jim Ricks’ statues got made, people would notice it more.” And Ricks has a strong argument when he says that the public have already voted for the Lady On The Rock, in a way. Why does public art have to conform to high-cultural taste?
Dublin City Council’s policy document on public art states that it will “develop a Public Art Programme which will offer opportunities for artists to engage with the city, making new work that responds to the context of Dublin as capital of Ireland, international city, and city of communities and localities.” What fits that mould better than the Lady?
There is of course the not inconsiderable barrier of middle-class taste. The middle class never voted for the Lady On The Rock, never owned it and never engaged with it beyond presuming it was a gang symbol. Could you foist a gigantic Lady on Blackrock? “I think I put one down in Dun Laoghaire. I had to get a little bit of that. They have to deal with that on a certain level. Maybe they don’t deserve it,” Ricks says.
“Wouldn’t it be really fun to see that? Because you know it from everywhere. As soon as someone pointed it out, I knew it immediately. And I suppose for an artist to point that out on a bigger scale, there’s a bit of fun to that. We’re talking about appealing to different audiences… a kid could get that art piece. Maybe that’s important.”
The Actual Story
Mr Gardiner made the Lady On The Rock as a clay model and then he brought it in to me and we sculpted it and made a resin cast. My expertise would have been in fibreglass resin casting. This would have been 1993, I think. His name was Harold Gardiner, but my relationship with him would have been professional, so I just knew him as Mr Gardiner.
He took the mould away then, and when he passed away, his wife called me to come and clear out his workshop. This must have been 1995, I think. It’s so long ago, I’m not sure. I took it then and sold it to Vincent Doran at Dublin Mouldings. I sometimes think I shouldn’t have sold it or I’d be well off now. So she’s been around a while.
At RPM Supplies we do plaster moulds and all the things for pottery, kilns and clayl those sorts of supplies. We do supply specialist mouldings for the film industry. We did some things for The Tudors when they were filming here, as well as The Vikings which is filming at the moment. We also did the plaster for the GPO scene of Michael Collins, and the cobbles to give the streets the authentic look.
-Edward Loughman, RPM Supplies