The Times We Lived In: The odd ‘Bowl of Light’ on O’Connell Bridge

Published: April 14th, 1953. Photograph by Dermot Barry

How brilliant is this photograph? It shows the sculptural installation known as the “Bowl of Light”, built as part of An Tóstal, a festival aimed at promoting Ireland as a tourist destination, which ran from 1953 to 1958.

Why the sight of a copper receptacle topped by plastic flames would encourage visitors to flock to this country in their droves is anybody’s guess. On the other hand, the very idea of systematically promoting tourism was, for the 1950s, way ahead of its time.

Anyhow, the bowl – placed on O’Connell Bridge just opposite the O’Connell monument – had been built in secret, behind a hoarding, causing much curiosity among the general populace in the weeks before it was unveiled.

Sadly, the artwork proved to be something of an anti-climax. “Just a week ago,” reads our jaunty caption, “it would have been impossible to have photographed the ‘Bowl of Light’ on O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, from this angle, but yesterday the only interested people appeared to be the seagulls. Even these boys, Wastel Persse, Richard Currie and Richard Burroughs, on their way home from school, found other things more exciting.”


‘Throw him in the river!’

To 21st-century eyes, the lads, with their overcoats, knee-length socks and “Just William” caps, look far more exotic than the monument. So, indeed, does the neon “Player’s Please” sign – which had adorned the buildings on Eden Quay for more than 20 years – at the top left of the shot.

The “Bowl of Light” had a much shorter lifespan. Just five days after our photo was taken, its flames were chucked into the Liffey by a student from Trinity College, Dublin. Like our schoolboys, Anthony Wilson was also on his way home from what was described in the court record as “a particularly good party”.

Newspaper reports noted that following his arrest, some members of the crowd had shouted “Throw him in the river!” at gardaí. Wilson was ordered to pay £48 7/6 to cover the damages.

The bowl was removed shortly thereafter, leaving the decapitated structure to squat on the bridge for a decade, no longer referred to as the ethereal “Bowl of Light” but, with typical Dublin disparagement, as “the tomb of the unknown gurrier”.

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