The story behind a hero and a statue
There aren’t too many statues being commissioned in Ireland these days.
Even if there was any money left in the public coffers, we veered away from statues some time ago, generally in favour of more contemporary pieces of public art.
However, in a studio on the English-Welsh border one of the UK’s finest exponents of portrait sculpture is currently dedicating almost every waking hour to a statue of one of this country’s greatest ever sportsmen.
Nickey Rackard will be immortalised in bronze in Selskar Square in Wexford town in March 2012.
The Rathnure man was one of the finest hurlers to ever grace the game and his exploits on the field in the purple and gold of Wexford are legendary.
However, Nickey experienced as many low moments as high ones in his life due to his chronic alcohol addiction.
He showed extraordinary courage to not only eventually come to terms with his problem after many years and, as the man himself wrote, experiencing “the depths of misery and degradation”, but to speak honestly and openly about it at a time when it was still very much a taboo subject in this country.
Nickey travelled the country with AA trying to help others and the pieces he penned on his life and battle with alcohol addiction remain as relevant today as they were then. He eventually died of cancer in 1976.
In my humble opinion, Nickey Rackard’s greatest battle was with himself and his greatest triumph was one of the human spirit. There are lessons there to be learned for all of us and that is why far more than a hurling hero is being honoured in Wexford next March.
His life and battle with alcoholism, including the views of Nickey’s son Bobby and some of his own words from pieces he wrote down through the years, are charted in this excellent article by Dermot Crowe.
The fascinating thing I’ve learned about the statue itself is the huge level of research, commitment and attention to detail that have gone into it by renowned sculptor Mark Richards.
Mark has made many visits to Wexford before and since he was awarded the commission by Wexford Borough Council and said he is well aware just how much Nickey Rackard means to people here.
“He’s an iconic figure, but you have to turn that pressure into inspiration or it could become overwhelming. It’s a tall order, but Nickey Rackard is my life at the moment. I’m really enjoying it. It’s very exciting and very challenging,’ he told me.
But before he ever thought about getting to work in the studio, Mark had a lot of research to do, on a number of fronts, starting with the site for the statue in Selskar Square.
However, this was far from the most challenging aspect of his research – hurling is not exactly a popular game where he’s from, he readily confesses! Then there was the significant task of researching the man to be commemorated by his statue.
Mark threw himself right into it and here’s just seven interesting aspects of his work to date:
- Mark got Wexford’s Kevin Gore to show him hurling in action, paying particular attention to the movements and all the finer details, such as how the hurl and sliothar are held. He filmed the footage to study it.
- Local hurl maker Philip Doyle made the sculptor a replica of a hurl used in the 1950s, which Mark describes as “a beautiful object”. He also visited the Croke Park Museum, to view a hurl used by Nickey’s brother Bobby in the 1955 All-Ireland Final.
- He has been working closely with Nickey’s three children, Bobby, Marion and Bernadette. “They have been fantastic, they have been really great to me and provided me with a lot of information and inspiration,” said Mark, who was warmly welcomed and given access to the family archive, a veritable treasure trove of photographs and memorabilia, all of which have proved most helpful to him.
- His most recent visit to the Rackards was an unusual one as it saw him bring with him a model of their late father’s head to ensure that he gets the likeness spot on! “You can only get so much from a photo and most of the photos are from the front, there’s no profile,” said Mark.
- The statue will show Nickey Rackard in a pose familiar to people who saw the legendary full-forward play. “I want him to be caught in movement, looking at the goal just before he throws the sliothar up for a strike,” he said.
- Nickey Rackard, the bronze version, will be over seven feet tall – or life-and-a-quarter size! Mark explained that this is because “humans are actually quite small things in isolation”, but that we seem bigger due to our personalities, movement and the noise we make. He said that you actually have to increase the size of a statue by 25% for it to seem life-size, describing it as “a trick of the trade”.
- An unexpected by-product of his work has been the emergence of hurling – or a version of it at least – on the English-Welsh border. “The children and neighbours were playing it during the summer. It was funny to see a hurling scene on the common,” said Mark. However, it’s not exactly the game we know and love over here as he did point out that “we have our own version of hurling, which involves the dog!”
You can follow Mark’s progress, get a full behind-the-scenes look at his work on the Nickey Rakcard statue and delve into the more technical details of the sculpting process on this site.