The bronze statue of Seán McCarthy from sports legend Christy Ring is the first piece of art visitors encounter upon arrival at Cork Airport. He captures Ring in all his dynamism, clutching his hurley as he dashes into the action on the pitch.
Ring, from Cloyne, County Cork, is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He retired from hurling at 46, but continued to coach and mentor until his death at the age of 58 in 1979.
The competition to design a memorial statue of Ring was first announced in 1992. McCarthy heard about it as he returned home on vacation from England, where he was studying for a degree in figurative sculpture at Stafford, having already graduated from the Camberwell School of Art and Design in London.
“I went to Garretstown for a walk with my girlfriend Miriam, who is now my wife,” he says, “and by chance we bumped into artist Vivienne Roche. She brought up the competition, and when we got back to Cork, I got the project specifications. I had about five days to send in my first application. But I met the deadline, and weeks later, back in England, I received a letter saying I had been shortlisted.
When he was next door, McCarthy met Cork Airport Manager Barry Roche who was the driving force behind the project. Barry said, ‘What you’ve done so far is good, but in your next submission I want more beef. You’ve never met Christy Ring. His animal ferocity, you should have seen it live. But Barry gave me all the visuals of Ring playing. I could freeze the images to better appreciate the man’s vigor.
McCarthy was looking for a way to capture Ring’s dynamism in the field when he recalled a book on Italian artist Donatello that he had borrowed from the Cork City Library when he was young. “I thought her statue of David was the most exquisite thing. Donatello hides his strength; he looks like a delicate boy, but you know he might take action. So I decided to do something similar with Ring; I had the famous study of him playing against Limerick, where he’s almost a superhero, but I sweetened that and gave him an implicit power. And this mockup won the final competition because it had the vigor that Barry Roche was looking for. “
Around this time, McCarthy returned to Cork, where, growing up in Glasheen, the fifth of 12 children of Ted and Betty McCarthy (his brother is singer / songwriter Jimmy McCarthy), he first studied art at the Crawford School of Art on Emmet Place.
“My mother was a painter and she could see the artist in me,” he says. “The vicarious part of itself has put everything in my way; she was coming back from town, and she would have got me some pencils, or she would give me money to buy art books from Eason. She helped me get into the Crawford when I was only fourteen. I was technically too young to be a full time student, but I had a good portfolio, and they let me in. John O’Leary was the head of the painting at the time, and he was like a father to me. It was a brilliant time in my life.
Then, says McCarthy, “I hit the roads, I was a wandering character for a few years. He found his way to England, where he eventually applied to continue his studies at Camberwell. “I spent three years there and got a suitable degree that would fit anywhere. He mainly studied painting, but an emerging interest in sculpture persuaded him to continue his studies at Stafford. “Stafford and Stoke are at the center of the ceramics industry, and this course was set up largely by ceramists to develop skilled artists. I learned a lot of things in two years, just by mastering the basics. “
While in England, a number of Cork artists had come together to establish the National Sculpture Factory on Albert Road. It was there that he completed his last model for the Ring statue, before it was cast in bronze by a Dublin foundry.
Ring’s widow Rita and children Christy and Mary were in attendance when Sports Minister Bernard Allen unveiled the sculpture at the airport on October 13, 1995. He cited the ex-Taoiseach and hurling medalist of all time. Ireland, Jack Lynch’s oration at Ring’s funeral: “As long as the young boys swing their fellows for the sheer thrill of the tingling in their fingers from the impact of ash on leather; As long as the hurling is played, the story of Christy Ring will be told, and it will be forever.
After work on the new airport terminal was completed in 2006, the statue was moved to a prominent location in the Outer Square, where it still stands today. McCarthy remains grateful for the exposure the commission gave him. “Barry Roche and I had a few arguments, artist / client type things, but we both held our best line and found a great compromise. But this man changed my life; from the moment I got the commission people started hearing my name.
McCarthy went on to make a number of important public commissions, including his statue of former US President Bill Clinton in Ballybunion and another of the Ned Power launcher near Tallow, County Waterford. Her future plans include a solo exhibition in July. “I have booked Ballymaloe Grainstore and hope to make sculptures large enough for it.”
He has never regretted his career. “When I was a child, my mother said, I will invest in you. I always thought it was rooted in me, and since then I have continued to work as an artist.