Pot shots at ‘Big George’


As Westport’s Octagon begins to teem with tourists for another season Áine Ryan examines research carried out by Father Tony King, former ADM of Westport parish, on the history of ‘The Monument’

THESE days Westport’s floral-scented Octagon is worlds away from that dramatic time when Free State troops, billeted in the Town Hall during the Civil War, took pot-shots – well, target practise – at the statue of George Clendenning. That was 95 years ago and the west Mayo town was in the shadow of seismic political times, like the rest of the country.
Father Tony King’s history of how a group of local men came together to restore ‘The Monument’ encapsulates the dramatic changes that have occurred in the west Mayo heritage town and tourism haven. In focussing on one key project that literally changed the skyline of the town, he confirms the strong ethos of community spirit of volunteerism that defines the town.
This research is the story of how a statue of St Patrick came to replace that of the son of a local rector, a wealthy merchant banker and agent to Lord Altamont, George Clendenning (1770-1843).
“[He] was the third member of his banking family to take up residence in Glebe House on Mill Street. He was described as a self-made man and the second son of the local rector. From the humble position of the family on their arrival in Westport, the vicar’s son amassed a large personal fortune and became a person of great influence and social standing in the town of Westport,” writes Fr King.
When appointed as agent to Lord Altamont in 1798, Clendenning established a merchant banking business at a time when the town ‘was growing and developing as a centre of trade and industry with a thriving port’. He also encouraged many locals to develop shops and businesses and build new houses.
“He had a deep concern for the poor and helped to relieve local suffering although he died before the full horror of the potato famine hit the West.”
A controversial figure, Fr King, suggests that Clendenning should, however, ‘only be judged by the standards of that age’.
“His politics, religion and position, would have alienated him from the popular movements of the period,” Fr King writes.
Interestingly, just a day after his funeral on July 10, 1843, a public meeting was held to organise the building of ‘a suitable memorial to his memory’. Subscriptions towards the monument amounted to an impressive £18,000.
It comprised a full-length statue of George Clendenning on a column over an octagonal podium. There were two female figures holding a child, which represented his philanthropy and benevolence. The Clendenning coat-of-arms was inscribed on two sides of the column with an inscription: ‘To the memory of George Clendenning’ and ‘Born in Westport 1770, died in Westport 1843.’
The controversiality of the the man it represented was confirmed when some eight years after the statue was erected, Sir John Forbes, a visitor to the town, observed that there were those who ‘prognosticate the precipitation of his effigy’.
“His figure was used for target practise by Free State troops billeted in the Town Hall in 1923-1924 when his head was shot off. Finally, the end came in 1943 – the centenary of his death – when the Urban District Council was debating a motion about the removal of Queen Victoria’s statue from Leinster House. It was decided to remove the statues, crest and inscriptions from ‘Big George’.”

Restoration of ‘The Monument’
FAST-FORWARD to 1984 and ‘Big George’ is once again on the urban council’s agenda with the strongest support for a statue of St Patrick because of his deep links to the area.
Five years later, in February 1989, Fr Tony King was invited to sit on the Westport Monument Restoration Committee by its chairman, Liam Walsh (RIP). The other members were Joe Berry (RIP), John Coffey, Tom (Bo) Durcan (RIP), Seán Staunton (RIP) and Cathal Hughes. Their aim was to hold the official launch of the new sculpture on St Patrick’s Day 1990.
“The meetings were held in a businesslike fashion and progress reports were discussed at each meeting,” writes Fr King. “John Coffey had site meetings with a representative from Tobin’s Consultant Engineers, Galway, and after various tests the column was deemed to be secure for the sculpture. Tom Durcan reported that the Sligo estate would transfer the site on the Octagon to Westport UDC. Seán Staunton reported that the members of the UDC were in agreement with the decision to put up a sculpture of St Patrick and its chairman, Michael Ring assured the committee of the total support of all the members of the council.”
After assessing the suitability of a small number of sculptors, it was agreed that Fr Tony King would contact Ken Thompson, on the recommendation of Patrick Pye, an esteemed artist who had designed two windows for the sanctuary of St Mary’s Church and, moreover, was a regular visitor to Clare Island.

Exciting commission
KEN Thompson recalls how this project was ‘a major undertaking’ for him.
“A three dimensional sculpture was an exciting commission and also the word carvings and the engravings on the panels around the plinth was a very attractive venture for me. I was excited,” he recalled for Fr King.
 Some weeks later Thompson arrived back to Westport with a model of Patrick he had imagined from his writings. Taking it out of a Jacob’s biscuit tin, the response of the committee who had met him in the home of Liam and Pam Walsh was one of ‘silence’.
“I asked if there were any comments or questions and while the silence was warm, it was unnerving,” Thompson recalls. He headed off to the Railway Hotel where he was staying having been told by Liam Walsh that he would ‘hear from them within ten days’.
However, a few hours later, close to midnight he received a call from reception to say there were people who wanted to speak to him downstairs.
It was Liam and the committee: “You have the job. So come and join us for refreshments.”
In the following weeks Thompson had a lot of contact with committee member and monumental sculptor, John Coffey.
“This strong broad-shouldered man of few words and a broad smile was so modest about his own sculpting skills and practical experience. We could so easily talk a common language. From the beginning John took me under his wing and we kept in regular contact.”

Fundraising appeal
MEANWHILE, the fundraising appeal was launched in Hotel Westport by Archbishop Joseph Cassidy. Liam Walsh presented the details: the sculpture would cost circa £40,000 which would encompass a carving of St Patrick in Portland stone; the total refurbishment of the monument and base; the restoration of the monument’s eight panels; a plaque giving its history; and a specially designed lighting system.
Likening St Patrick to ‘a Celtic St Paul’, Dr Cassidy noted that the national patron was a symbol of ‘how we celebrated our Irishness’ and ‘bonded people all over the world and not just on St Patrick’s Day’.
“He is also our local saint, the one who has particular association with this part of the country and whose high profile is as high and I hope as indestructible as the Reek.”
Ultimately the entire project cost £70,000, £6,000 of which was donated from parish funds, with the finance group on the committee proactive in sourcing monies from such public bodies as the Department of Environment, the National Lottery, Mayo County Council, Leader and the ESB. This was significantly increased by the generosity of the public, local businesses and private donations, with the people of Westport effectively contributing a whopping £50,000 of the costs.

Changing skyline
IT was on St Patrick’s Day 1990, however, that the skyline of Westport would change forever and the new monument was blessed by the retired Archbishop Cunnane, on behalf of Archbishop Joseph Cassidy.
Even though Fr Tony King had been transferred to Athenry, he returned three years later to turn on the lights on December 23, 1993.
The eight-foot sculpture of St Patrick symbolises ‘a youthful energetic man’ with ‘strong, firm’ features while his ‘huge, rugged size carries a gentleness and compassion with his hand out-stretched with a blessing’.
“It continues to arouse the curiosity and stimulate the imagination of so many people who visit Westport and walk around the Octagon,” writes Fr King.  
In the words of Cathal Hughes: “It is now 28 years since this development took place. Putting St Patrick on top of the monument and linking it to the national pilgrim mountain has instilled in our community a great pride in our place and in who we are.”