Extinct Irish Elk Turning Heads
Motorists driving by make ridiculously dangerous U-turns to come back and stare at this magnificent beast. Bicyclists risk near collisions as they stop dead in their tracks to take a closer look.
Thought to be long extinct, the giant creature stood a towering ten feet high with his antlers spanning eight feet.
How did this monstrous deer pull itself out of a peat bog and find its way to the little fishing village of Liscannor in County Clare? Just ask Andrew Carragher, the sculptor who created him.
Andrew cruised into Clare with the sensational sculpture, riding high on a flatbed trailer behind his large navy blue van.
The elk was constructed from hundreds of branches of twisted, turned and woven wood to form his muscular body and the enormous rack of antlers. The animal pulsed with energy. As if on high alert, the elk’s colossal head was turned around to look behind him, sensing a possible predator, or maybe a chance to mate.
He was on view in front of Ann Daly’s Atlantic Way Gallery, a terrific new addition to “The Strip” of little Liscannor.
I spotted a blue-jean clad fellow with the aura of a woodsman, sitting on a low stone wall chatting with a young lad. I butted into their conversation and asked, “Are you the artist?”
“Yes, I am,” said the soft-spoken woodsman, who looked to be whittling at a moss-covered four foot branch.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I said apologetically. “That’s an amazing work of art you have created.”
With his long, thick brown hair whipping in the breeze, he answered shyly, “Thank you very much.”
Small in frame, with a bushy brown beard, I searched for his eyes, covered by his long bangs, before engaging him further. I sensed an old soul behind them.
“Can you tell me more about it? What kind of wood did you use?”
With that, the artist excused himself from the boy, and got up from the stone wall to enlighten me. His hot pink smartphone was poking out of the pocket of his plaid flannel shirt. This modern piece of technology seemed to completely contrast to this otherwise connected-to-the-earth person.
Now standing, he was not much taller than me at 5’ 1”, and I noticed a bit of grey had crept into his beard.
“Some ash, alder and some sycamore,” he said as we both moved closer to the massive animal. Next to one of the big hoofs was a display of postcards featuring the sculpture in the clearing of a forest of tall evergreen trees. Price € 2.50.
I just happened to have that amount and handed it to the artist.
“You’re all right,” he said, not wanting to accept it.
I gave it to him anyway and picked up a card. On the back was his name and his website. Later, a visit to his site revealed that Andrew earned an Honors Degree in Fine Art Sculpture as a graduate of the West Wales School of Art, Glammorgan University.
“Where was this picture taken?” I was curious about where he’d staged the arresting photograph on the front of the card.
“Slieve Gullion,” he replied, with a Sean Connery-esque kind of “shh-ing” lisp.
I couldn’t quite understand the word after Slieve, so he asked, “Can I write on the back of the card?”
I quickly fished out a pen from my black Prada messenger bag. Not only did he write “Slieve Gullion, Co. Louth/Armagh,” he began to draw a picture and explained, “This area is known as the mythical land of Ireland.”
The Mythical Land of Ireland
First, Andrew made a drawing that resembled a reclining pregnant woman. Up at the top of her belly, he drew a small rectangle and said, “There is a cairn here. On the twenty-first of December, the winter solstice, the light passes through an opening, and illuminates the cairn.”
“Is it like Newgrange?” I asked. Having been to Newgrange, I knew it was a prehistoric monument with a grand passage tomb built around 3200 BC. The passage leads into a chamber with three alcoves and they, too, are aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice.
“Yes, like that,” he nodded.
Additional research later on informed that the summit of Slieve Gullion is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland. The monument dates back to between 4000 B.C. and 2500 B.C., making it up to 6000 years old. That means it could be 3000 years older than the Pyramids of Giza, and nearly 4000 years older than Stonehenge. Like Newgrange, the tomb is aligned to the setting sun at the winter solstice.
Andrew drew the mountain with the cairn. He also expertly rendered, no bigger than one inch high, a perfect map of Ireland, and put a dot where Slieve Gullion is located.
Again, when he was explaining that this whole area plays a prominent role in the mythology of Ireland, I couldn’t quite catch the word he was saying when describing a particular character. These Irish words sounded so foreign to my ears. He wrote: “Cuchullian.”
Of course, that required more research. It turned out that the name can be spelled “CúChulainn,”or “Cú Chulaind,” or “Cúchulainn.” No wonder I was stumped! Regardless of the spelling, this mythological Irish hero was said to be an incarnation of the God Lugh (pronounced “Loo”), and he took the form of a fierce guard dog that he killed in self-defense. Then, as the story goes, he offered to take its place until a replacement could be reared. In more modern times, Cu Chulainn is often referred to as the “Hound of Ulster.”
What I found especially fascinating is that the legend of Cú Chulainn is very similar to the story of the Persian hero Rostam, the Germanic Lay of Hildebrand. It also calls to mind the Greek epic hero Heracles, suggesting that just like the Great Irish Elk that roamed vast distances by crossing the land bridges after the thick glacial ice had melted, other cultures in far flung places created similar myths in mind bridges of their collective consciousness.
To be the most famous son of Lugh was no small thing, considering Lugh was said to be a Celtic god of storms, especially thunderstorms, and possessed several magical weapons. One in particular, an invincible spear, is said to have never missed its target. And this spear was so bloodthirsty it would often endeavor to fight without anyone wielding it. Presumably, Cú Chulainn inherited the mantle of all this lore for future generations of warriors who would avenge the many murders of his mythical ancestors.
Scores of books have been written over the centuries about the wives, wars, and powerful magic attributed to these legendary figures. Suffice to say, our Great Irish Elk emerged from Andrew’s fertile imagination, carried in the well-read head of this County Louth native. County Louth, steeped in myth, legend and history, is named after the village Louth, which is in turn, named after Lugh.
“So this animal of yours is really monumental. How big did they really get?” I asked Andrew.
“It got to be seven feet at the shoulder and the antlers could span twelve feet. I would like to go bigger, but I couldn’t because then I couldn’t get it out of the shed I was working in.”
I was mesmerized by the giant creature, that looked as if it could bolt away at any moment. All I could manage was, “This is magnificent.”
Andrew, drawing a crowd now, was on a roll. “It was called the Great Irish Elk because this is where they found so many examples of the antlers. They roamed from here to Siberia and Canada. It ran across the whole northern hemisphere—of the whole planet. I think it got as far as China.”
We were all entranced. It really hit home then; I’d read that long ago Ireland was entirely land-locked before it became an island.
The artist expounded, “They were found in the bogs and the lakes. Even in Dublin.”
“There are bogs in Dublin?” I blurted out in astonishment.
“There are bogs everywhere. Even in Dublin,” he explained. “They did some excavating. Found the bones of a Great Irish Elk that was 20,000 years old.”
I loved listening to Andrew. The word “years” sounded like “yearsh.” “Horse” was “horsh.” “Person” was “pairshon.”
I gazed at the perfectly formed hoof of the giant animal. “How long did it take you to make him?”
“About seventeen months, on and off,” Andrew replied. “Probably four months, if I had worked on it straight through.”
At this point, Andrew realized he hadn’t asked, and said, “What is your name?”
I shook his tender hand and said, “Taba Dale.”
“Nice to meet you, Taba,” Andrew said warmly.
“What would a piece like this sell for?” I queried.
After a short hesitation, Andrew replied, “About 15,000 euro.”
That would be close to $17,000 (U.S. dollars). Good, I thought. I was glad he did not undervalue his work.
Taken by the Andrew’s Elk
Just then, a man on bicycle dismounted. With helmet in hand, he came over to admire the impressive elk sculpture.
In awe, he remarked to Andrew, “This is EX-traordinary!” Hardly able to contain himself, he continued, “I’m out in the country and I have a place. Something like… something like that would be… that’s just unbeeeeelievable. Do you have a website?”
Andrew gave him a card and said good-naturedly, “I would love to work with somebody to create something —to create something to their liking. Whatever it is. This is to my liking.”
The swank cyclist, sporting a neon yellow shirt and wrap-around sunglasses, said, “We’re staying with friends—they have an enormous place in Donegal.” He stared up at the elk’s gigantic rack of antlers, and gushed, “Something like that would be just fantastic. I must let them know about it.”
“I’m sure it would be a perfect setting for this animal,” Andrew replied.
“So how much is that?” The cyclist asked, as if price was no object.
Since I’d just asked the question myself, Andrew turned to me. “What did I say, Taba?”
Not missing a beat, I replied, “Upwards of 15,000 euro.”
“Jaysus!” the man said with a hearty laugh. “I can see it. I can see it. Maybe not for me, but it is absoluuuuuuuutely extraordinary!”
To keep the cyclist enthused, I asked Andrew, “Have you done a smaller version? Or could you do one?”
Andrew chimed right in, “I would love to do a commission. I would love to do a smaller version.”
The cyclist inquired, “What’s your background? Do you just work in wood?”
“I work in all materials. I work in glass as well.”
The exuberant cyclist reiterated, “This is absolutely EX-traooooordinary! Where are you based?”
“County Louth.” (Sounds like “Loud.”)
“In Louth!” The cyclist did a quick calculation and realized that is about 300 miles away.
“How come you’re down here?”
“Just spinning about,” Andrew said with a smile.
I asked the cyclist in jest, “How come you’re down here?”
“We’re over at the Doolin Folk Festival.”
The cyclist tuned into my accent and asked, “And where are you from?”
“Originally, Washington, D.C., but don’t hold it against me.”
I didn’t want to draw attention away from Andrew and his creation. I was glad when I heard the cyclist shout to his partner, “Rita, isn’t it amazing?”
“Yes, yes it is fabulous.” Rita agreed as she walked her bicycle over to us.
Rita’s mate reiterated, “Absolutely extra—oooooor—dinary! This is the sculptor here—the creator!”
Andrew continued to answer more questions posed by the cyclist and Rita. “This piece here is ash, this is alder and a few random pieces like sycamore…the antlers—I picked them up very early—just had the frame right, had the stance right…not sure what kind of wood that is…like to find out for meself…”
I excused myself and said goodbye to Andrew. I hoped that the discussion with the cyclists would eventually lead to a sale or commission for him.
I wandered home in wistful contemplation, remembering the work of Deborah Butterfield that I saw at the Phoenix Art Museum when I first moved to Arizona. She is best known for her depictions of horses made from found objects and natural materials, such as wood.
I imagined Andrew’s Elk at the PAM, giving Butterfield’s sculpture, titled “Ponder (Reflexionar)” a run for its money; and making the statement: “There’s a new alpha male in town.”
Not the End of the Story
While I was immersed in writing The Great Irish Elk story and shared Andrew’s insight about how the area of Slieve Gullion played such a prominent role in the mythology of Ireland, I realized that he is truly an original thinker and is very connected to the world that surrounds him. For me, Andrew had expanded the intersection of art and other disciplines such as anthropology.
Then I wrote to Andrew and asked him to tell me more about his process creating his art. The intellectual power and warmth of what he came back with genuinely moved me. With Andrew’s permission I am happy to share his profound narrative about his art:
The Elk is a result of my investigation into my surroundings. I have always felt undernourished in terms of the explanation that is presented of Irish mythology and what the ancient stories really encapsulated.
I found an approach of study into my local landscape that is eternal, practical, logical and most importantly spiritual. This approach has brought me to a loving relationship with nature.
How so may you ask ! It begins with inspiration from years of study by Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore which is encapsulated in a book named Island of the Setting Sun.
The great Irish Elk is physically and more importantly spiritually valid in our collective history and ancestral memory. And for me it is fulfilling, attempting to reveal its essence. I hope this does not confuse things but the language that chose me was sculpture with nature’s raw material, showing the life of the trees in this instance reincarnated into what I hope does them justice.
Further study from this starting point has brought me to decode ancient mythology all around the world with its common practical and very spiritual journey through time. And its personification as time shifted in unison or regulation from the heavenly elements and relieved its god-like beauty in Earth’s nature which we can touch, see, and it nourishes our body and soul.
That eventually brought me to express what I have learned through my language of sculpture. This was a perfect medium to have a knowing relationship with nature or in my case trees.
Disengaging in preconceived thought or planning of construction was the only option for full expression, I was confronted with the option of approaching the material (fallen tree branches) devoid of logical selection. But lovingly trusting the branches would direct me to were it would express more than my human eye could see.
I am honored that you showed interest and enjoyed contemplating The Great Irish Elk. I believe the work you are carrying out in your writing books with your observations is highly commendable and of great importance.