A Mystery Solved.By Cormac F. Lowth
The presence of the evil looking bird on the top of the figure can be explained by the sixth labour of Hercules. A great flock of man-eating predatory birds had descended upon the town of Stymphalos. These were equipped with huge beaks, which were capable of penetrating any armour. The birds were wreaking havoc among the citizens of the town and the task of destroying them fell to Hercules as one of his labours. Using a pair of bronze Krotola or clappers provided by Athena, Hercules made the birds take flight from the trees in which they were perched beside a lake and he was able to kill them at his leisure while all of the time being impervious to their sharp beaks by virtue of the protective qualities of the skin of the Nemean lion. The Stymphalian bird can be seen vainly trying to peck through the skin while the smug countenance of Hercules below denotes his knowledge of his invincibility. A large wooden pipe once adorned the mouth of the figure, which, although it must have been an addition, would have sat well with the general tenor of the carving. The timber used in the carving, which was visible at the rear where some parts had broken off, looked like yellow pine and, if so, it might denote a North American origin. Here also could be detected a clue to the probable maritime origin of the figure. At some stage in its existence an infestation of Gribble had occurred. This is a marine boring organism, Limnoria Lignorum, which bores longitudinally through timber in seawater. The holes are similar to woodworm but are easily distinguishable. Continual exposure to these tiny creatures can reduce ships timbers to a shell. It can be deduced from this that it must have been immersed in seawater for a considerable period. This can only mean that it was a figurehead, possibly from a wrecked ship which had spent some time, either in the inter-tidal zone from where it could have been salvaged with relative ease, or in deep water from where it had been trawled up from the remains of a ship that had sank. There are several examples of similar figureheads depicting Hercules in various maritime collections throughout the World. In her paper, Mrs. Mullen stated that the figure had come from a wreck at Mornington, near Drogheda sometime before 1832. In two of the volumes of his Shipwrecks Of The Irish Coast, Edward J. Bourke mentions ships named Hercules being wrecked in various places around Ireland. All occurred too late to be of interest except one which, ‘foundered off the coast of Ireland on 22-3-1799. She was from Wiscasset for Liverpool’. Unfortunately no specific location is given. Wiscasset is in the State of Maine. In common with most wooden figureheads, this figure would probably have been carved with a torso and arms, all of which have long since disappeared. While only the front and top features of the head portion of the figure are still in existence, it is rather remarkable that even a part of a carved wooden figure, which had spent some time in the sea and had been exposed to the elements while mounted on a plinth outside the Man Of War Inn, should survive at all. There is, however, a good thickness built up from successive layers of paint over the years and this must have contributed to its preservation. It is also rather strange that none of the many writers, who have described the Head over the years, seem to have deduced the fact that the figure represented Hercules. The origins of figureheads on ships are to be found in antiquity when votive figures were placed on ships bows to appease the gods. Following the renaissance, elaborately carved and gilded figures were to be seen on warships symbolising the grandeur and power of the State. The use of figureheads on merchant ships reached its zenith in the nineteenth century with the proliferation of sailing ships that occurred with industrial expansion. Their numbers eventually declined as steel hulled steamers made inroads into the trades which were formerly the preserve of the sailing ship. Many ships were named after heroic figures and the figureheads usually reflected the name of the ship. Ships crews generally took great pride in their figurehead and they were usually kept well decorated. The remaining portions of the Man Of War Head are badly in need of conservation to prevent further deterioration. Stabilisation might possibly be carried out by the use of a wax saturation method such as Polyethylene Glycol but this is an expensive and lengthy process. It is to be hoped that it will eventually be placed on display in some suitable venue where all can admire the once enigmatic figure that gazed down from the plinth outside the Man Of War Inn. References.
- Balbriggan, A History For The Millennium, Jim Walsh, The Man Of War and the Turk’s Head.
- Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast, Vols. 1&2. Edward J. Bourke.
- Dictionary of Classical and Literary Allusion, Wordsworth Reference.
- The Seashore Naturalists Handbook. Leslie Jackman.
- Dublin Historical Record, Vol LIV. No. 1, spring 2001. Colin Scudds, Old Coach Roads From Dublin, 1754 – 1821.
- Ships Figureheads, Mike Stammers.