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John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street

Adrian Frazier
Lilliput Press
John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street



In 2006 in the evenings as I was walking back from NUI Galway along Lower Canal Road, he appeared turning out of his driveway. He has a kind of rolling, swinging gait, the legs a bit short, a barrel of a trunk, a strong-necked man, with a rich crop of white hair. His head is canted slightly downward as he picks his way forward. He is a bit like an old bull himself, as if his many bulls were self-portraits: 'Small Bull', 'Long Bull', 'Bull Bellowing', 'Prancing Bull', 'Charging Bull', 'Small, Square Bull', 'Spring Bull', 'Rough Bull', 'Roaring Bull', 'Alert Bull', 'Tense Bull'.

Mostly, those who know John Behan or his work would add, Kindly Bull, Sociable Bull, Sensible Bull. Brian Friel (who has one of his own) described John Behan's bulls as 'enormously solid artefacts, 4-square on the earth, confident, assured, executed to a point of absolute completion.'' Four-square: not to be budged off course.

In 2008, walking the same canal bank road, I used to see John Behan taking only the slowest steps. He had had hip operations, first one side, then the other. Like the god of the craft he practises, Hephaestos, he'd become lame. In The Maze Maker, a sculptor's novel about Dedalus, Michael Ayrton says 'All great masters of metal work are lame.'2 It is not that lame people go into that line of work, as blind men become harpists. Blacksmiths are shaped by their trade - broad-backed, strong-armed, thick-fingered and lame. Lifting, cutting, melting, pouring molten metals, hammering, polishing, and riveting -it's all hard on the back and hips, and then inevitably something heavy, iron or bronze, falls on a foot, or topples onto a leg. Metalwork is that form of art which takes the biggest toll on the body.

My uncle, Richard Frazier, was a sculptor, mainly a portrait artist. He worked in clay. Richard had the softest hands, and long lady fingers. What Herbert Read says of sculpture - that it is an art of palpation - was true for him;' Richard touched his figures again and again into lifelikeness, built them up with damp finger pads of river clay.

John Behan is different. He is a blacksmith artist; sometimes he is even the junkyard's resurrection artist, making collages of animals and men out of discarded machine parts. If you saw John Behan walking along Canal Road away from you into town, you would know right away that there is a man who has done a day's work, and many a year's work too, hard work.


One day in 2001 after I had moved to Galway, I had a brainwave. The university campus seemed to be all in pieces. There was the original quadrangle where the administrators enclosed themselves - the replica of Christ Church, Oxford -dating from the Queen's Colleges grants of 1845. Old munitions factories by the Corrib canal had along the way been repurposed as classrooms and offices. The Arts Block of the 1970s was a massive exercise in functionalist modernism by Scott, Tallon and Walker. Between and about these were scattered buildings erected in more impoverished times to fill the pressing need for space - buildings for the professions, engineering, architecture, business and so forth. The campus in its incoherence looked like a historical record of false starts.

But (this was my brainwave) what if you were to get John Behan to do twelve or fourteen sets of figures? They would be partly suggestive of the Tribes of Galway, and partly of the Twelve Muses, those who inspired the Quadrivium (Geometry, Arithmetic, Music, Astronomy) and Trivium (Logic, Grammar, Rhetoric) on which the first universities were based. These sculpture groups could be strung along through the campus, artfully placed to tie the whole thing together. When one considered what Behan had been able to do with 'The Arrival' in the United Nations Plaza in New York, or 'Flight of the Earls' in Mayo, you could expect to get the very best out of him by letting his imagination run on a wide array of themes like the Irish Liberal Arts. Can you picture these groupings? Maybe not, but he could.

Everyone has ideas now and again that may be wonderful, or in fact really silly. Such notions are normally permitted to dissolve into the stream of daily reverie. But on this day I drafted a proposal to Iognaid G. 0 Muircheartaigh, the university president. Here was an idea that would make him and his campus famous around the world - a university campus that is one big allegorical sculpture garden. A couple of million euro should cover it. Surely there was some donor who would want his name to live forever in association with such a monument? Iggy 0 Muircheartaigh of course did not get to be president by being a fool. Yet he responded that he was glad I had not kept this idea to myself, his admiration for John Behan being second to no one's.

Nothing came of it, of course. Still, the Twelve Muses as the Tribes of Galway led to a conversation with John Behan about what he was doing with himself, and would like to do. That conversation has never really stopped.

My day job was as a teacher of literature, and John Behan turned out to be a mighty reader. Although I had written a biography of George Moore, he knew things about Moore that never found their way into that fat book. The great generation of Irish writers born in the late 1920s and 1930s - Heaney, Montague, Friel, Kilroy, Edna O'Brien - he knew them all, and could tell stories that lit up one's understanding. There were plenty of moments over an end-of-the-day pint at the Bierhaus on Henry Street when I wore a 'And did you see once Shelley plain?' expression on my face. His reading went far and wide. I would find him one day at our local, studying Tacitus. Another day it would be a life of Graham Greene. Kenny's Bookshop sometimes used John Behan as a reader of proofs of forthcoming publications, to sniff out what was good and what was not.

Reading was part of the sculptor's daily order. Sketch first thing in the morning, model in wax before the midday meal, read in the afternoon, walk to the shops, spend an hour in the pub, then home to the kitchen to prepare the evening supper (he is a serious cook): that was his ritual. It steadied him in several dimensions of his humanity. As an order of life, this ritual seems wise, even holy and Jewish, like Ecclesiastes: 'To everything there is a season.' His discipline answers to William Blake's advice in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: 'Think in the morning, Act in the noon, Eat in the evening, Sleep in the night.