The Times We Lived In: A marble man of mystery

Published: October 21st, 1992. Photograph by Jack McManus

“You should have gone to Specsavers, lads: your monocles don’t quite match. Or how about some jewellery, to jazz up those rather plain Davenport frock coats? Take a leaf out of my book, and add a medallion slung casually over your shoulder.”

We wouldn’t make fun of the three eminent gentlemen in this photograph – but hey. If marble busts could talk, they just might.

Today’s photograph was taken at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1992, when lectures were given by the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies to mark the centenary of the birth of its founder, Éamon de Valera.

The lecturers were the Celtic scholar James Carney, on the left of the shot, and Prof Sir Fred Hoyle, the British astrophysicist, on the right. In the middle is the economist and civil servant TK Whitaker who was, at the time, chairman of the DIAS council.


Hoyle and Carney made an interesting and – despite their conservative dress code – somewhat unconventional pairing. Hoyle, best known as the scientist who came up with the term “Big Bang” – even as he rubbished the idea itself – had resigned from Cambridge after a dispute with university administrators in the 1970s.

Carney had also been at odds with the Irish academic establishment, thanks to his insistence that saga narratives in old Irish, then seen as dating from the mists of time and recited generation after generation in “the halls of the kings”, were in fact highly literary artefacts much influenced by the Latin classics.

But at least these men are still remembered: as, in Ireland at least, is TK Whitaker. Not so the fourth man in the photo.

The marble bust by the Irish-born sculptor Laurence Geoghegan was made in 1807. The sitter, however, is unknown. According to the National Gallery website, the medallion around his neck, inscribed “The Triumph of Truth”, may identify him as the English sportsman Thomas Thornton. Then again, he may be the founder of the Royal Humane Society, Dr William Hawes.

It’s a pretty inhumane fate, even for a marble head. The mists of time, eh? Once they come down, that’s pretty much the end of us.

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