The Maid of Erin Project 2011

“The older shop fronts of the Irish towns I sometimes see as the armorial bearings of imaginative knights forced by circumstance to don economic strait jackets!”

A public art project by Sean Lynch Listowel, County Kerry 3rd June – 27th August 2011

curated by Ciarán Walsh /

In the summer of 2011 The Maid of Erin bar re-opened (it had been closed for 5 years) in Listowel, Co Kerry, as a centre for the study of the artworks of Pat McAuliffe.  The centre consisted of a collection of published material, a reading area, a photographic display, artefacts from McAuliffe’s workshop and an audio-visual presentation on McAuliffe’s work in North Kerry and West Limerick. During the project, local painter and sign writer Freddy Chute restored  and repainted McAuliffe’s most famous artwork, ‘The Maid of Erin.’ The project was managed by Ciarán Walsh /

Pat McAuliffe lived and worked in Listowel from 1846 to 1921. In a career as a builder he applied exterior plaster, or stucco, upon shopfronts and townhouses. From the 1870s onwards he began to develop an ambitious and often exuberant style within the compositional framing of facades of everyday buildings in the region. In the streets of Listowel and Abbeyfeale, one can still a broad range of elements culled from the vocabulary of classical architecture and ornament along with an eclectic mix of art nouveau, Celtic and Byzantine styles.  Over 35 buildings can be attributed to McAuliffe. MacMahon, in typically poetic fashion, described him thus:

In retrospect I see him quite clearly, great and black-bearded, his dark eyes alive under a cream-coloured straw hat.  He came of an old-established family in the town. As a young man, Pat McAuliffe had in him a restless, imaginative streak that left him dissatisfied with the chores of plastering in an average Irish country town. After a span of run-of-the-mill work, he began, without any formal training in art, to experiment in casting in concrete in his little yard.  These experiments gave him a new sense of power.  Subsequently, when engaged to plaster the front of a house, he demanded a free hand with the design or else refused to execute the work.

The project is funded by the Percent for Art Scheme, Department of Environment,

Heritage and Local Government and Kerry County Council


Potters 300dpi

The Story of Pat McAuliffe and ‘The Maid of Erin’

Mary Potter and Jeremiah Galvin were nervous as they waited for Pat McAuliffe of Listowel to remove the tarpaulin that covered the front of their  premises. They had commissioned a shopfront from McAuliffe, a local builder who specialised in external plaster decoration or stucco. Nobody knew what to expect. Mc Auliffe, a taciturn widower in his mid-sixties, had as usual demanded a free hand with the design. He had a reputation for elaborate ornamentation but this job was different. He had been seen carting a sculpture of a naked lady to the building. No one knew what was going on.  He worked in secret, hidden behind a screen until the job was finished.

Mc Auliffe donkey and cart


McAuliffe was late. He was making his way down Church St. in a donkey cart when he passed a young woman. The donkey had stopped out of habit, knowing well that McAuliffe would want to chat to her. Eventually he arrived on Main Street ‘great and blackbearded, his dark eyes alive under a cream coloured hat’ as described by Bryan ‘The Master’ MacMahon. He climbed the scaffold and unveiled his scheme for ‘The Central Hotel.’   It was a larger than life sculpture of a bare breasted Mother Ireland, hand on harp, wolfhound at her feet and round tower by her side. She was enthroned on a large rock garlanded with shamrocks and framed by a scroll declaring “Erin Go Bragh.” She was crowned with a ‘Fenian’ sunburst.   The townspeople held heir breath. It was 1912 and the Catholic Church was consolidating its control over Irish Ireland. The local priest demured, pronouncing that “if famine were to happen again, sure she would feed half the nation.”


Maid of Erin Stripped 300 clr


It was a close call.   In Abbeyfeale a naked ‘Angel’ was removed from O’Connor’s  at the ‘request’ of a priest. It was the centrepiece of McAuliffe’s most elaborate and and eclectic work , a sculpted building that stands as a remarkable testament to a man who set about transforming the streetscapes of Listowel and Abbeyfeale.   McAuliffe was born in 1846 in Lixnaw we think. He died in 1921. There is a death certificate but no birth certificate. He married Catherine Gleason and had 15 children, eight of whom were living when the 1901 census was taken. By 1911 Catherine had died and McAuliffe was living alone.   It was around then that McAuliffe underwent a transformation. Since the 1870s he had developed an ambitious style of stuccowork but he now began adding sculptural elements and complex symbolic references to his facades.

‘The Maid of Erin’ is the best known of these. It is a gem of the Gaelic Revival and badly underrated. Art historians have shown some interest in terms of  a ‘native’ element within the revival but McAuliffe is regarded more as an eccentric builder than an artist.   He did catch the attention of  Frank O’Connor in 1950. He used McAulliffe’s deisgn for J. M. Keane’s public house to comment on the eloquent and ornate quality of Kerry English.   “In Listowel you can drink in a pub which has inscriptions in three languages: “Erin Go Bragh,” “Maison de Ville” and “Spes Mea in Deo.”

Maid-of-Erin old 400


Architectural interest has been negligible probably because McAuliffe’s canvas was the standard townhouse of the time. Interest has focussed on individual shopfronts -missing the big picture that is the scope and complexity of the man’s work.   This has not been listed. Its survival is down to the people of Listowel and the pride they take in their town. Listowel is a compact and prosperous market town that still has the imprint of its anglo-Norman origins   Built on a bend in the River Feale, it  fans out from its Norman keep, through the market Square and along tidy streets of family businesses to rows of neat artisan cottages at the other end of the town. Around this core is ‘Irishtown’ and beyond that the milk rich plains of North Kerry and the Shannon strip.


Posted on

November 5, 2013