13 July 2020
I spent some time at the weekend walking around the streets of Limerick, by the banks of the Shannon, at a late lunch in the Green Onion, and visiting Saint Mary’s Cathedral for the first time in many weeks.
A new addition to the cathedral grounds since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown took its grips on the country is a sculpture of Donal Mór O’Brien, former King of Munster, by the chainsaw sculptor Will Fogarty.
The sculptor from Hospital, Co Limerick, was commissioned by the cathedral to make one of his works of art. The sculpture was commissioned by Saint Mary’s Cathedral to revive one of the trees that had to be removed from the boundary walls due to the damage they were causing to the walls.
‘A few trees had to come down because they were doing damage to the boundary walls in Saint Mary’s. They are beautiful structures, so it would have been an awful shame if anything happened to them,’ said Will, of Fear na Coillte Chainsaw Sculptures.
Donal Mór O’Brien was a 12th century King of Munster whose palace stood on the grounds of the cathedral. When he came to power, he founded churches all over Munster, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
It took Will a week and a half to turn the remains of a poplar tree into this new sculpture, and he completed the work at the end of March.
His attention to detail includes the chainmail effect on the king’s sleeves and the brooches on his cape. ‘He has a pretty big nose,’ Will told the Limerick Leader. ‘But somebody told me … that apparently the O’Briens were renowned for having big noses.’
‘It was lovely working in my hometown,’ he said at the time. ‘The amount of support I got was brilliant. People passing by the railings were shouting in, giving encouragement, giving thumbs up. It was amazing.’
Will Fogarty, who lives in Co Limerick, is a self-taught chainsaw sculptor. He began hand-carving walking sticks and decided one day to pick up a chainsaw and give it a go.
Will Fogarty also calls himself Fear na Coillte, in reference both to the wood spirits in his work and to himself. He lives in the foothills of the Ballyhouras in Co Limerick, surrounded by mountains and forests. He now spends half his time creating large sculptures for towns, parks, schools and public places.
The other half is spent carving smaller commissioned pieces in people’s gardens or at home, and he also gives demonstrations of his work.
Most of Will Fogarty’s work is on a commission basis following briefs from clients. A large part of his work is on stumps left after a tree is felled. All his work is in wood that has been felled by nature or has been cut down in a way that is sustainable.
On the way back from a wedding in Sligo late last year, two of us stopped at the Linear Park in Carrick-on-Shannon, where he has created a sculpture of Saint Eidin, a local seventh century saint. He carved this new statue on the site and it was unveiled in August 2018.
His other sculptures include three sculptures in the Forge Park beside the river walk in Tarbert, Co Kerry. He was commissioned by the Tarbert Development Association in 2014 to work on the tall stumps of three trees that had to be shortened after the storms of the New Year in 2014. He cut two faces from fables into two of the stumps and the Salmon of Knowledge from the Fianna myth into the third stump.
The two faces are of wood spirits; one is ‘The Spirit of Night,’ asleep with a wise owl by his beard; the second face, ‘The Spirit of Dawn,’ is awake to represent the dawning of the day, and has fish jumping out of his beard.
A third image, ‘The Salmon of Knowledge,’ marks Tarbert’s connection with salmon fishing in the River Shannon and also celebrates the local centre of knowledge at Tarbert Comprehensive School.
Will Fogarty also fashioned a number of seats from the tops of the trees he felled, and these make for a perfect spot to stop at in the Forge Park these days and to enjoy the summer sunshine.
Later this summer, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Kostas Georgakis (1948-1970) should not be forgotten. This Greek student set himself ablaze early on 19 September 1970 in a square in Genoa as a protest against the colonels’ junta in Greece, and he eventually inspired protests across Greece that led to the fall of the regime.
Kostas Georgakis (Κώστας Γεωργάκης) was born on 23 August 1948 and grew up in Corfu in a family of five. His father was a self-employed tailor and both his father and grandfather had fought for Greece in World War I and II.
He was a bright schoolboy at the Second Lyceum in Corfu, and in August 1967, a few months after the colonels’ coup on 21 April, he went to Italy to study engineering and geology in Genoa. He year later, he joined the Center Union Party of Georgios Papandreou.
In an anonymous interview with a magazine in Genoa on 26 July 1970, Georgakis revealed how the junta’s intelligence had infiltrated the Greek student movement in Italy. He traced how the junta intelligence had set up the National League of Greek students in Italy, infiltrating Greek student groups in major universities.
But the Greek secret service got a recording of the interview and were able to identify Georgakis. Soon after, he was attacked by members of the junta student movement.
He was still a third year student when the junta revoked his student exemption from conscription and bullied his family into stopping his monthly allowance. It was retaliation by the junta for his growing profile in resistance to the colonels and in the Italian branch of PAK, the Panhellenic Liberation Movement set up in exile by Andreas Papandreou in 1968.
Fearing for his family in Greece, Georgakis decided to make an act to raise awareness in the West about the political crisis in Greece. He filled a canister with petrol, wrote a letter to his father and said farewell to his fiancée Rosanna.
Around 1 a.m., early in the morning of 19 September 1970, Georgakis drove his Fiat 500 to Matteotti Square. According to street cleaners working that night near the Palazzo Ducale, there was a sudden bright flash of light in the area at around 3 a.m. At first, they did not realise that this was a burning man. As they got closer saw Georgakis burning and hear him shouting: ‘Long Live Greece,’ ‘Down with the tyrants,’ ‘Down with the fascist colonels,’ ‘I did it for my Greece.’
The street cleaners said Georgakis refused their help and ran away when they tried to put out the flames. They could smell his burning flesh and said it was something they would never forget, but that Georgakis was one in a million.
Georgakis died nine hours later, at around noon. His last words were: ‘Long Live Free Greece.’
In his final letter to his father, he wrote:
‘Forgive me for this act, without crying. Your son is not a hero. He is a human, like all the others, maybe a little more fearful. Kiss our land for me. After three years of violence I cannot suffer any longer. I don’t want you to put yourselves in any danger because of my own actions. But I cannot do otherwise but think and act as a free individual. I write to you in Italian so that I can raise the interest of everyone for our problem. Long Live Democracy. Down with the tyrants. Our land which gave birth to Freedom will annihilate tyranny! If you are able to, forgive me.’
In a letter to a friend, he wrote: ‘I am sure that sooner or later the people of Europe will understand that a fascist regime like the one based on Greek tanks is not only an insult to their dignity as free men but also a constant threat to Europe ... I do not want my action to be considered heroic as it is nothing more than a situation of no choice. On the other hand, maybe some people will awaken to see what times we live in.’
His father arrived to find his body was completely carbonised from the waist down, up to a depth of at least 3 cm in his flesh.
His death caused a sensation in Greece as the first clear expression of the depth of resistance to the junta. The junta and its Foreign Ministry feared his death would be compared to the death of Jan Palach in Prague the previous year, and they were worried about the impact on Greek tourism.
At Georgakis’s funeral on 22 September 1970, Melina Merkouri held a bouquet of flowers as she led an estimated 1,500 or more people with flags and banners accompanying his body from the hospital to the grave.
Stathis Panagoulis – a brother of the poet Alexandros Panagoulis who attempted to assassinate the dictator Georgios Papadopoulos – did not turn up to give an expected funeral address.
The speakers at a press conference after his funeral included Ioannis Leloudas, living in exile in Paris, and Professor Christos Stremmenos, a future Greek ambassador to Rome, who read a message from Andreas Papandreou.
The junta delayed the return of his body to Corfu for four months, citing security reasons, fearing demonstrations and inventing bureaucratic obstacles. Eventually, the junta secretly sent a ship to Italy to take his body back to Corfu. On 13 January 1971, his body was transferred to the Astypalaia, owned by the Greek shipping magnate Nikolaos Vernikos-Eugenides. The ship left for Piraeus on 17 January.
His body was buried secretly in the Municipal Cemetery in Corfu the following day. A single police cruiser accompanied the Georgakis family, who were taken by taxi to the cemetery.
In 1972, Greece tried to block the worldwide distribution rights of Gianni Serra’s planned Italian film about his life, worried it would be show by the BBC and on German, Scandinavian and US television. The junta feared the film would inspire anti-junta protests, like those inspired by the 1969 film Z by Costa-Gavras.
A plaque in Matteotti Square, where he died in Genoa, bears an inscription in Italian: La Grecia Libera lo ricorderà per sempre, ‘Free Greece will remember him forever.’ It quotes his words: ‘I cannot but think and act as a free individual.’
The City of Corfu has dedicated a memorial in his honour near his home. The monument was created gratis by the sculptor Dimitris Korres.
The inscription in Greek on the plaque reads: ‘Kostas Georgakis, Student, Kerkyra 1948-1970 Genova. He self-immolated in Genoa, Italy on 19 September 1970 for Freedom and Democracy in Greece.’
The lower part bears his words: ‘I cannot but think and act as a free individual.’
The story of Georgakis remains unique in Greece, and his death is seen by many as an act of self-sacrifice in a spirit of dynamic protest. He is the only opponent of the junta to have decided to die by suicide in protest against the regime, and is one of the most important acts of resistance acts of the time.
He inspired many student protests that followed, including the Athens Polytechnic uprising in November 1973 that eventually paved the way for toppling the regime.