In Irish mythology, a púca is a mischievous, shapeshifting spirit that can take the form of a horse and entice unwary travellers on to its back for a wild ride.
Aidan Harte knows how that feels. Eighteen months ago the sculptor was commissioned to create a 2-metre tall bronze statue of a púca for the town square in Ennistymon, County Clare.
What followed was a headlong gallop into a surreal controversy about the role of public art in Ireland that only now, perhaps, is coming to an end.
Along the way Harte found himself trolled on social media, pilloried from the pulpit, championed by celebrities and credited as the unwitting inspiration for a music video featuring a mock execution.
“It’s the oddest thing,” said Harte, 43. “The púca is like the English puck that plays tricks. This story kept on getting stranger and stranger until I wondered if there was a bit of his magic.”
Clare county council decided in 2020 to spend €30,000 (£25,400) on a sculpture striking enough to attract tourists to Ennistymon, a town near the Atlantic coast. Harte won the tender and in early 2021 started work in his Dublin studio on what was to be The Púca of Ennistymon.
For the artist, who had studied in Florence, it was a dream job – bigger in scale and prominence than anything he had done before.
Harte sculpted a horse’s head and torso atop human legs. “A lot of public art in Ireland is abstract and corporate – nothing that anyone can get upset about. This was a full-blooded representation of one of the big forgotten characters of Irish folklore,” he said.
He sought to convey ambiguity, he said. “The fairies are not good or bad, they’re something in between. The púca is a creature of chaos. It’s that uneasy, unexpected feeling I wanted to give the sculpture.”
Harte got an uneasy, unexpected feeling of his own in April 2021 when photographs of the clay mould for the sculpture leaked to townsfolk in Ennistymon and elicited swift excoriation on social media. The sculpture was called ugly, frightening and hideous. The council was so taken aback it told Harte to pause the work.
When, from his pulpit, the Ennistymon parish priest, Father Willie Cummins, denounced the sculpture as “sinister”, Irish media seized on the story.
“Journalists got on to me. In a moment of weakness I said it was ‘Father Ted stuff’,” said Harte, who compared the row to an episode from the fictional priests on Channel 4’s sitcom. “They never let go of it.”
Everyone seemed to have an opinion about the sculpture – “the scare from Clare” – which, without leaving its studio, spawned editorials, essays, tributes and denunciations.
One man posted a selfie in which he was dressed as a druid and held a placard saying “down with this sort of thing”, a quote from Father Ted. An artist painted a mural depicting the sculpture along with a howling wolf, a fairy and a UFO.
A representative of a tourist attraction in County Monaghan, 150 miles from Clare, lobbied Harte for the sculpture by penning a fictional short story entitled I Púca.
A songwriter called Frank Callery composed a song lauding the sculpture but another composer – Enda Haran – wrote a riposte that envisaged blowing it up. “Your ugly horse can kiss my ’orse,” said one line.
“It was basically a bit of craic with a serious edge to it in that nobody was consulted,” said Haran. “It had nothing to do with religion or the local priest.”
A group calling itself The Burning Pitchforks made a video performing the song, which included a mock execution of someone dressed as a horse.
— John Cooke (@johncookeradio) January 11, 2022
Rattled by the controversy, the council hired Connect the Dots, a community engagement firm based in Philadelphia and Dublin, to consult Ennistymon residents.
In a poll that attracted 674 responses, 370, or 55%, objected to the púca. The report noted at least 79 mentions of “ugly”, 10 mentions of “scary”, 11 mentions of “hideous” and eight mentions of “eyesore”. Suggestions for alternative locations included “space near Pluto” and “bottom of the ocean”.
Of the 291, or 44%, who favoured the sculpture, there was praise for its sense of fun and imagination.
“Technically stunning, incredible craft and thematically rich,” said one. “Beautifully encapsulates the essence of the Púca legend – he is not supposed to be a cuddly character,” said another. Celebrities such as Dara Ó Briain, Imelda May and Chris O’Dowd tweeted support.
In January the council decided it would not bring the sculpture to Ennistymon. “Have we really got to the stage where even the auld Púca must be cancelled?” lamented Diarmaid Ferriter, a historian, in the Irish Times.
Last week however the council announced it had found a home at the Michael Cusack Centre – named after a founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association – in the village of Carron, 13 miles east of Ennistymon.
“It took a long time to not go very far,” said Harte. “I’m delighted. It’s important that it goes somewhere that it’s loved.”
A documentary maker plans to make a film and a cultural historian is studying the row but Harte wonders if anyone will ever make full sense of it all.
The sculpture is being cast in metal and will be assembled and polished before moving to Carron in June. Harte hopes visitors will be bold enough to rub the Púca’s toe.