BY SARAH CANTY
DRIVING over the three-arch bridge in Ballydehob, motorists will notice that ‘Maighdean Mhara’ has returned from the depths to once again adorn the estuary beneath the famous 12-arch bridge.
The ‘Lady of the Sea’ is a 14-foot mermaid created by local artist Susan O’Toole, who had also sculpted the original that watched over the same spot during the 1990s and 2000s.
This current coquettish creature is made from 250-year-old ash wood donated by Joan O’Leary from a tree on her uncle Mick Levis’ land. That the materials came from the beloved Levis family (known especially for the iconic Nell and Julia Levis, who ran Levis’ Bar for many decades) was of particular sentiment to O’Toole.
‘They were so good to me when I first visited Ballydehob in the 1970s,’ she says. ‘They were the heart of the place.’ She has dedicated this project to the memory of the Levis sisters.
The original mermaid also came from prominent Ballydehob heritage. When the blossoming chestnut tree that decorated the main street for an excess of 200 years had to – controversially and regretfully – be felled in the 1990s due to disease and overgrowth, Ballydehob Community Council preserved the trunk in the hope of using it in some meaningful way.
They sought out Ms O’Toole to create a monument for the estuary. The resulting mermaid graced the waters under the 12-arch bridge until she also succumbed to age and the elements some ten years ago. Today, Maighdean Mhara boasts a luxurious new tail made from thousands of scales which O’Toole laboriously cut from metal and fastened with rivets.
O’Toole says that part of the challenge and process of creating the piece was combining the density of the timber top with the lightness of the tin tail, reflecting the surroundings. ‘I wanted her to harmonise with sky, trees, water and bridge.’
O’Toole is grateful to Ballydehob Community Council, who helped source the materials as well as facilitate the installation of the masterpiece.
‘It was Phil Shanahan and Tim McCarthy from Goleen who built the stone wall (on which the mermaid lies),’ says O’Toole. ‘They both had to walk two single planks umpteen times a day, carrying buckets of cement, plus drills, picks, shovels and hammers’. They travelled over the slob to the small island in the estuary.
‘They collected her from outside my kitchen, then laboured to a sweat to get her lifted onto a truck and taken to the estuary, below the 12-arch bridge.’
Maura O’Brien, secretary of the local Community Council was full of praise. ‘The Council would like to thank Susan who sculpted the mermaid and all those involved in the project.’
Susan studied traditional and creative basketry and has extensive experience working with prominent artists such as Ana Maria Pacheco and Cecil Collins. She is currently sculpting a tribute to Guglielmo Marconi for the Goleen and District Community Council.