James McKenna Sculptor
1933 - 2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sad Tale of Hazelwood

Art Critic Mebh Ruane reflects James McKenna's Hazelwood

Art Critic, Mebh Ruane's carefree celebration of James McKenna's Hazelwood Piece raises a number of questions. As Mebh writes her merry, happy piece, James McKenna is dead - having spent most of his last years in abject poverty - and his magnificent Hazelwood piece, Ghost Riders in the Sky, reduced to dust through neglect and indifference.

We comment on a Review by a Ms. Mebh Ruane, one of Ireland's leading Art Critics, which appeared in The Sunday Times, March 18, 2001

In The Sunday Times, on March 18, 2001, a journalist, Mebh Ruane, wrote a review of an Exhibition by Michael Kane. As it happened, Ms. Ruane got a little carried away: the review ended up more of a hymn of praise to James McKenna, despite a certain lack of information.

Ms. Ruane does not wish to have her article reproduced here. We, of course, respect her wishes, but still, for a number of reasons, we feel it is important to include an overview of this article - and to add a few clarifications. It adds something to the story and achievement of James McKenna.

Mebh starts off merrily about James McKenna's Ghost Riders in the Sky: 'Yippee-yi-ay! Yippee-yi-oh! Ghost Riders in the Sky! The ghost riders pause in a clearing up in W B Yeats's Hazel Wood in Sligo. Officially, the huge wooden sculptures are called Fergus and the Brazen Cars. Underneath that Irish mythology/punk band name is this subtitle borrowed from Stan Jones's much-covered cowpoke song, shouting about life, integrity and the music its maker, James McKenna, whistled as a young man in the early 1960s' .

(Alas, a little research would have shown Mebh what many in the Arts world find a source of great grief and a sad comment on 'the Arts establishment' in Ireland. James McKenna's magnificent Ghost Riders ride no more in Hazelwood Sculpture Park. The Ghost Rider Group is no more.

A combination of public neglect and passing vandals did their worst and smashed this wonderful piece. Repeated fforts to get authorities to intervene were to no avail).

Mebh Ruane continues:

The shout is silent now. McKenna died last year, leaving a studio filled with carvings. . . McKenna was special. A gentle, fierce and principled man, his almost child-like innocence survived a tough and difficult life.

(McKenna's tough and difficult life was, in part, due to neglect by successive Arts Councils etc.)

McKenna was a foundling, Ms Ruane claims. (Not strictly true: James was brought to a Mother and Baby Home when he was a few days old. His mother stayed with him for a time before they both went their separate ways: she to 'service' in one of the big houses and James to live with a farm family in Wicklow, a 'boarded-out child'.)

Life-size wooden horses with all the robustness of medieval Italian carving. McKenna's hands started to form a kind of Irish art from which romance had been evicted. The work was sculpture, usually carved in wood. Heads and figures emerged within a vocabulary that was at once European and mythological. His 1983 show at Temple Bar presented life-size wooden horses with all the robustness of medieval Italian carving, and led to an Arts Council commission at Trim, Co Meath. where he made a horse and rider cast in bronze.

(James remembered this Commission with a mixture of joy and regret: when the splendid Horse and Rider were completed, the then Arts Officer informed him that monies had run out, so, it was one more bitter-sweet commission for James.)

McKenna didn't realise that particular potential, preferring to focus on visual art. Often his own work gave way when he believed new battles needed fighting. Long after protest politics was fashionable, he would stage one-man protests outside places such as the Abbey theatre (and the Arts Council) because of their failure to support new writing, or complain to politicians and bureaucrats about their latest cultural offences. The acts won him admirers, but may have lost him patrons . .

McKenna's bronze horse and rider still stand on the Boyne banks at Trim, a location that interested him greatly because his was the first significant sculpture in the town since its 19th-century citizens decides to commemorate their townsman, Wellington. The wonderful, monumental wooden horses he made cannot be accessed now, although some of his friends are trying to trace them.

Note; 'His friends' must not have tried to trace them too enthusiastically. James would have appreciated their interest during his lifetime. Many of those wonderful, monumental wooden horses could not be sold during the Artist's life-time, but the story of those horses is easily told - and, mostly, a sad commentary on Arts Officers et al.

But, the good news is: one of the finest of those McKenna Horses, Oisín Caught in a Time Warp will be unveiled in the new Administrative Building of Kildare Country Council in autumn 2005.

McKenna gave unsparingly to individuals and groups, all in the cause of building art and culture in a lasting way. The cost is the absence of his work from big public collections and the absence of his name from much canonical art history, written now.

We are puzzled, as was James, to know why giving 'unsparingly to individuals and groups, all in the cause of building art and culture in a lasting way' should be incompatible with being included in canonical art history?

Though James McKenna spent most of his last years in abject poverty and is now dead and his magnificent Hazelwood piece reduced to dust through neglect and indifference Mebh concludes her carefree article:

Deep in the Hazelwood Forest, his sculptures still sing. If you want to save your soul from hell, a-riding on our range, then, cowboy, change your ways to-day, or with us you will ride. Yippee-yi-ay! Yippee-yi-oh! Ghost riders in the sky!

We include this last quotation: bitter and ironical. The magnificent Hazelwood pieces, due to a combination of vandalism and public neglect, have now largely returned to dust. Maybe, we understand why Ms. Ruane did not wish this article to be included. Ms. Ruane worked at one stage at Visual Arts Officer in The Arts Council.

Achievement of James McKenna sculptor

James McKenna dramatist

James McKenna -European Perspective

Oisin Caught in a Timewarp

James McKenna playwright and poet

Sad Tale of Hazelwood