By: Ronan Sheehan
Publication Date: October 1999
‘The unlikely world of monumental sculpture opens up an incredibly varied series of tableaux in Foley’s Asia. A meditation on arms, oppression and empire, it offers a unique insight into Irish and Indian colonial experience.’ – Neil Jordan
‘Foley’s Asia suspends itself quite beautifully between contradictory worlds. Like Foley’s sculpture, it is a book which poses provocative questions about art, colonialism, violence, and even the nature of fiction itself. It’s a brave book, agile, evocative and understated. It belongs on the shelf with others of the ‘international bastard’ brigade – W.G. Sebald, Michael Ondaatje and John Berger.’ – Colum McCann
While an anarchist group blows up the equestrian statue of General Gough in Dublin’s Phoenix Park during the 1950s, the narrator recalls his mother’s Kiplingesque tales of childhood in India, recreating the atmosphere and events of the Irish abroad in the service of the British Empire. The life of John Henry Foley (1818-1874), Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor, is interwoven with those of some of his principal subjects, Hardinge, Montgomery, Outram and Lawrence, Foyle College boys from Derry, who formed a remarkable constellation of soldier-administrators in northern India during the nineteenth century.
The powerful, suggestive sketches of these Irishmen speak for generations gone. Engagements, atrocities and counter-atrocities are colourfully drawn in a language of heroism that conveys that turbulent, chaotic thing that was Britain’s empire in Asia. Gough himself was a hero of the Peninsular War, wheeled out in the 1840s to pursue the punitive Opium War in China and to conquer the Punjab.
Ronan Sheehan has created a remarkable imaginative work through these related narratives, shifting between nineteenth-century set-pieces and modern-day Ireland. The statue from which the book derives its name, the vulnerable and defiant figure of Asia below subverting Albert above in the Hyde Park memorial, expresses the conflicted loyalties at the heart of Foley’s finest monuments. By exploring these fractured identities and interrogating the past, Foley’s Asia enriches our understanding of this sculpted world.
RONAN SHEEHAN, co-founder of the Irish Writer’s Co-Op, is author of The Tennis Players (1977), Boy with an Injured Eye (1983) and The Heart of the City (1988). He won the Rooney Prize for Literature in 1984.