A Pardon for Púca?

I have observed keenly in the past several months the interest and strong opinion from many people in county Clare on the existence and destination of Aidan Harte’s now famous Púca statue, originally earmarked Ennistymon.  To my considerable surprise it has evoked much debate and controversy.


The Púca is part of our pagan-celtic heritage.  He/she/it is a mythological figure, part of farming or agrarian folklore.   The eponymous and daunting figure had the capacity to bring either good fortune or the opposite.  In appearance the Púca, a brute of a creature, is half-horse, half-human, not unlike some of the ancient Greek and Roman classical figures.


Some people liked the proposal to have such a representation in the public square.  Others felt it ugly, offensive and inappropriate.  For some it did nothing to showcase the interests and talents of the area, did no justice to the improve the aesthetic appearance of a Clare provincial street-scape and for others still it offended their strongly-held religious sensibility.


An article in one of the national papers felt that it was as a result of the a denunciation from a local pulpit and the words of the preacher that doomed the project to failure.  I wonder how much this contributed to what followed?  Let’s explore a little in the background!


When St. Patrick came to Ireland in the 400’s AD it was an enormous challenge for him to credibly present the Christian faith amid the entangled and resistant undergrowth of so many pagan traditions; sheela-na-gigs, ring-forts, dolmens, ancient wells, sacred mountains, pisreoga and much more.  To this day, despite the influence of Christianity for almost two millennia the remnants of the pagan and ancient celtic past remain ingrained in many areas.  Much of this is still clearly evident in many holy wells dotted across the county and in particular in the Burren or along the Wild Atlantic Way.  Many of the sculptures, statues and emblems in Ireland’s tidiest town, our capital, Ennis bear witness to this and rest in harmony and respectfully along-side the numerous Marian shrines of the town that bear witness to the Christian faith.  It’s instructive to note the tradition of gargoyles on the façade of Cathedrals and Churches, including our own, here in Ennis.   They are a representation of an ugly face, so designed to frighten away the evil spirits lurking in the air around and about!


Considering all this and in view of the multi-cultural society and multi-faith environment in which we live and move these days, surely there ought to be a welcome and openness to the diverse traditions and heritage of all?


Perhaps more to the point, the  horrific and almost frightening appearance of the proposed statue may be what caused offence.  This is not a judgement on the very talented artist who is expert in his field but in the image of ugliness that he endeavours and succeeds to portray.  In a world in which image, appearance, beauty, the striving after bodily-perfection to display an image of the opposite is likely to offend our sensibilities.


Pursuit and presentation of what is aesthetically pleasing is commendable and worthy, but I wonder if in doing so we shy away from the reality of the opposite that is so much part of our world and existence?  I wonder if our preoccupation with the perfection of image is necessarily a good thing.  Maybe this spills into other areas of life as well?  I wonder if there might be a reluctance to address, acknowledge and hence grapple with the presence of the negative in our world and lives?  The bad in opposition to the good, virtue being opposed by evil, light in competition with the dark.  We are just emerging from a distressing time of loss and sadness due to Covid and now head-long into an horrific time with the evil face of war on display every day.  Do we ignore that or make it part of our reality and transform it’s effects to the good?   “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works”, St. Augustine reminds us.  We often rejoice that our belief and preaching has decommissioned the hell-fire and brimstone approach of the ‘missions’ of old and that is a good thing.  However in doing so to such an extent are we in some ways throwing out the baby with the bathwater in effectively denying the presence and face of evil?  St. Ignatius of Loyola wisely counselled knowledge the opposition before going into spiritual battle.  Pope Francis often mentions the reality of the devil or the evil one in his biblical references.


One wonders if we were confronted with the sobering visage of the Púca on the street as we pass, if it might harden us up and arm us for battle against the darkness of the world around us as we go?


Fintan Monahan, Bishop of Killaloe

Clare Champion Article Friday 25th of March 2022