Project Sheela unveils feminist artwork on Trinity campus honouring Dr Noël Browne

The Sheela na Gig was erected ahead of Lá Fhéile Síle

Street art group Project Sheela have unveiled a new piece on campus in honour of Dr Noël Browne, a Trinity alum and Irish politician who served as minister for health from 1948-1951.

Launched on International Women’s Day 2020, the Dublin-based project pays homage to the struggle for women’s rights by erecting a fresh trail of Sheela na Gigs, sculptures known for their traditional association with female sexuality and fertility, each March.

In a post on Instagram, the artists paid tribute to Browne’s work on the Mother & Child Scheme, which proposed the provision of free state-funded healthcare for all mothers and children aged under 16, with no means test. Following strong opposition from bishops of the Catholic Church, the scheme was ultimately rejected by the government and Browne was forced to resign as minister for health.

The post concluded: “Sheela thanks Dr Noël Browne for his pioneering work, his bravery & righteous stand against the Church’s oppressive obsession with women’s bodies.”

The Sheela na Gig can be found on a wall amongst the bike racks opposite Trinity Sports Centre.

This year Trinity is the fifth in the project’s series of locations, with others including the National Museum of Ireland, Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, the Law Society of Ireland and the former Jury’s Hotel site in Ballsbridge.

Dating back to the pre-Christian and Medieval periods, Sheela na Gigs are figurative carvings of naked women, posing so as to accentuate their exaggerated genitalia. Art historians have theorised about the meaning behind these mysterious sculptures, presenting a number of interpretations; from a protective talisman or fertility figure, to that of a warning against sinful lust.

Many Sheela na Gigs found in Irish churches and castles have been defaced or removed by the Roman Catholic Church in the past century due to them being deemed vulgar and offensive. In a bold reclamation of power, Project Sheela aims to distribute unique renditions of these symbolic displays of female anatomy once again, placing them at sites significant to Ireland’s women’s rights movement.