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There is a road in my home town of Midleton that floods at the slightest opportunity. Running alongside the town estuary, all it takes for the Bailick Road to disappear under water is a moderately high tide and a few hours of rain. There were attempts over the years to alleviate the problem, such as when the council reclaimed some land and built a small park on it. The park soon became a hotspot for teenage drinking, as it was away from prying eyes, in a less than scenic area alongside the fragrant wetlands of the estuary and adjacent to the town bypass. All this changed, however, with the erection of the Kindred Spirits sculpture in the middle of the park.
Five years ago the local council began a programme of erecting statues and monuments around the town. Costing upwards of half a million euro in total, there was the 1798 Pikeman outside the courthouse (whose scroll was stolen from his hand shortly after he appeared), a monument to ‘Angel of the Cassiar’ Nellie Cashman (who some claim was actually from Cobh), and a statue of a small boy being eaten alive by some rabid geese, supposedly to celebrate the town’s famous market, The Goose’s Acre, but which actually looks like it was a scene from The Wicker Man. There were other statues, but the most famous of them all is the steel feather sculpture by Alex Pentek, created to commemorate the kindness shown by the Choctaw people, who sent money to Ireland during the Famine.
Pentek’s Kindred Spirits isn’t just one of the most beautiful of all the works produced under the programme, but it also shines a light on a little known story of human kindness – that a people on the other wise of the world who suffered so much could rally together to help others who they had never met. Almost two centuries later, it is still an inspiring story, one that deserved to be revived and celebrated. However, as someone who regularly has to give directions to tourists looking for the sculpture, it’s hard to understand the decision to locate it outside the town centre. Perhaps the council never expected this statue to become the most celebrated, or perhaps they were simply running out of places to put them, what with the statues of feral geese and a scroll-less Pikeman in the centre of town, but it still is a crying shame they didn’t just put the feathers in the large park next to the Jameson Heritage Centre, one of the region’s largest tourist draws. The current location of Kindred Spirits is difficult to find, and not especially scenic. Also, if you happen to visit at high tide or after heavy rain, you may need a canoe to get to it.
Beyond their locations, the series of monuments caused much debate locally – why spend all this public money on art? Why not spend it on something practical, like flood defences? Surely we could take that money for public art and just spend it all on potholes, meaning our public spaces would be paved like an airport runway but without a trace of personality, creativity or imagination – three things the Irish people pride themselves on?
Those who decried the spend on the statues in Midleton – and I include myself among that pantheon of gits – can now eat humble pie, as the Kindred Spirits work and the awareness it created has led the Taoiseach to create a scholarship for Choctaw students to attend university in Ireland from 2019 onwards. I can only hope that should any of them wish to visit the Kindred Spirits sculpture, that they do it during outside of the wet season, which here in east Cork is the months of July through to April, inclusive.
Should they get trapped here by floods in the longer term, they could easily adapt to life in east Cork, as their sport of stickball is largely similar to hurling – as anthropologist Kendall Blanchard noted of the game in the 18th Century: “While players could tackle, block, or use any reasonable method to interfere with the other team’s movement of the ball, there were implicit limits to acceptable violence.” If the term ‘acceptable violence’ doesn’t sum up Cork schools hurling, then I don’t know what does.
The most important message of the Choctaw donation to Ireland was that there were people who cared about what was happening to us – there were those who heard about the horrors of the Famine and knew it was wrong, and did what they could to help. Populist politicians here who offer soundbites about how we should ‘look after our own’ before we help refugees and migrants, need to think about the Choctaw people, who faced genocide at the hands of European invaders, and still believed in humanity enough to send money to Europe to help us. Charity may begin at home, but it certainly doesn’t end there.