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The Bull of Sheriff Street by John Behan

Writing.ie | Non Fiction

By Justine McGrath at http://www.thebookclubcafe.com

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The eminent academic and author Adrian Frazier states at the beginning of this beautifully designed book:
“It was the easiest and most enjoyable writing process of any book I have written.”
Well, in my opinion, he has done both Ms MacHale (to whom the book is dedicated), and his friend John Behan, extremely proud.

The book comprises a mixture of photographs of Behan’s sculptures and art work, alongside a narrative of the most interesting aspects of his career and life. We also learn much about the social and artistic life of Behan, and other artists and writers of the day, many of whom were his friends. This book is much more than a worthy adornment to any coffee table, it merits being widely read and examined in detail.

John Behan was born in 1938, the first of seven children born to Simon and Margaret Behan. The family settled on Sheriff Street in Dublin. Simon Behan had a corner shop. It was a place which, although rough, brought out the magic in some. Other residents who would also become famous for their artistic pursuits grew up on the same street, amongst them Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly and Jim and Peter Sheridan. As Adrian Frazier explains:
“These characters have something in common: they are ineradicably Dublin, working class and intelligent. There is humour, humanity and a self-reliant toughness about them.

John Behan loved living on Sheriff Street. Nearby there were animal pens of cattle, pigs, sheep and bulls, awaiting transport from the docks to Britain. It was here that Behan had his first experience of watching the power of the bull, and it was to remain an image he never forgot. He also spent a lot of time in the country with his father, often visiting the family farm in County Laois. The young Behan was fascinated by all types of animal life, many of which would feature in his sculptures.

Later, the family moved to Marino from Sheriff Street and John initially attended Scoil Muire on Griffith Avenue. At the age of 16 he took an art class from Paddy McIlroy at the North Strand Technical College. Here he learnt more about metal work as well as drawing, and McIlroy showed him how to make small sculptures out of steel and copper. He made his first bull at the age of 16 and at 17, he attended the Royal College of Art and Design.

Behan was a young man in a hurry. Adrian Frazier describes his rapid pace of learning in both sculpture and drawing, and how, in August 1960 at only the age of 22, he exhibited his first Bull at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, at the National College of Art and Design, for which he received high praise.
Behan’s interest in sculpting bulls is about more than art. He sees the bull as being symbolic of the Irish male, who was forced to emigrate from Ireland and then either stayed away or returned to an uncertain future. As the author explains:
“They too were worried, challenging, fighting, rampant, tense, testosterone-rich, wounded and proud.”

Behan and his fellow artists changed the landscape of art in Ireland. They wanted affordable art for the people. They were not interested in the artistic snobbery displayed by the Arts Council, and they fought it and its founder Father O’Sullivan, with great determination. However they had to wait until 1973, when the Arts council was scrapped in its then current form, and Behan, along with Seamus Heaney were appointed to the new council.

Frazier’s narrative focuses mainly on Behan’s career. He describes Behan’s progress throughout the sixties and his move to London for a couple of years in 1960, where life was very tough. Behan learnt more about art by attending drawing classes at night at Ealing Art College and he worked as a metal worker by day.
Frazier describes in glorious detail the culture of creativity that was flourishing around Dublin during the sixties, and how writers and artists supported and encouraged each other. The area around Baggot Street known as ‘Baggatonia’ was where they all hung out and Patrick Kavanagh was regarded as the ‘King of Baggatonia.’ They all spent a lot of time in McDaid’s pub and there is a superb photograph on page 41 of a group of them, calling themselves ‘The Independent Artists.’

The locations and social hubs for these artists provide a fascinating back drop to their ‘fierce drive for self-education.’ Places such as Groome’s Hotel in Cavendish Row, The Project Gallery (set up by Beehan and Colm O’Brian in 1967), and the Gate Theatre itself, which was used not only to show art, but to debate art and politics as well.

Frazier deals sensitively with Behan’s personal life throughout the narrative. During the late sixties, early seventies Behan married and had three children. Sadly in 1980 his marriage broke down and he moved to Galway. In 1987 he met Emer MacHale and as the author tells us;
“They had found in one another what they each most wanted.”
They were extraordinarily happy together until her sad death in December 2012.

The illustrations of Behan’s sculptures in the book are worth the price of the book alone. Behan’s sculptures include bulls, birds, other animals and figures such as Icarus. But perhaps his sculptures with the most historical significance for Ireland are his sculptures on the famine and the Flight of the Earls. The famine memorial is ideally placed in Murrisk County Mayo at the foot of Croagh Patrick. It is a beautiful and stark reminder of a part of our heritage that should never be forgotten.

My own personal favourites are his sculpture of Paddy McGinty’s goat and his drawing entitled ‘Punishment,’ a representation of Seamus Heaney’s poem’ Punishment,’ about a girl who is tarred and feathered for going out with a British soldier.

This book would not usually be something I would pick up in a bookshop. However I found it a fascinating insight into the artistic lives of many of our most famous artists, poets and writers, during the sixties and seventies in particular. Adrian Frazier writes with great sensitivity, in showing the many facets of this great man’s life and work. I believe he has shown that Behan is much more than a sculptor. He is an artist in the broadest sense of the word – a creative artist, who loves literature, art and sculpture. I was delighted to read that he is still sharp, still working and still bringing joy to many people through his wonderful sculptures.

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