Category Archives: Comment

Altering States: the curious case of Johanne Mullan’s critique and Jimmy Deenihan’s chocolate teapot.

At the beginning of February, RTE repeated its review of regional development in the arts in Ireland as part of Althering States,  Cliodhna Ní Anluain’s series examining “100 years of the arts in Ireland.”  Johannne Mullan of  the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) highlighted the lack of investment in the visual arts by organisations ‘in the regions.’

Johanne Mullan should know. She manages the National Programme at IMMA, a scheme which provides venues and groups with ‘access’ to the Museum’s collection. The key point that she makes is that the development of the visual arts has been hampered by the failure of regional arts venues to make adequate provision for exhibition spaces or the employment of professional visual arts practitioners. Mullan did not refer to Siamsa Tíre or her role as member of its board of directors for much of the past decade.

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Students of Tralee Community College installing their exhibition in the Gallery, Siamsa Tíre. Photo: Emily Doran

Siamsa Tíre was, In many respects, an exception in terms of regional arts development.  In 1991 this grassroots company opened a state of the art, newly built theatre that incorporated a dedicated visual arts space. That space may not have been conventional but  a little bit of investment and a lot of handiwork transformed it into one of the best spaces in the Southwest. Artists liked it: it was a good place to exhibit.

The company also employed a Visual Arts Director from the outset. I replaced Marial Hannon in 1995 and left the company when the post was made redundant in 2010. One of the last exhibitions I curated was a show of photography by John Millington Synge. This opened in Inis Meáin in the Aran Islands and went on to Paris, where it was a big hit. It was incorporated into The Moderns (2010)  in IMMA, one of the rare occasions when an exhibition moved from a regional venue to IMMA.

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The end of an era:the Synge exhibition in Le Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.

The Synge exhibition epitomised the scale and scope of the visual arts programme 1n 2010. With the agreement of the Arts Council, the gallery operated like no other arts centre gallery in the country. Exhibitions were commissioned, artists’ fees were adequate, international projects (New York, Shanghai, Newfoundland) were developed in collaboration with artists, and there was a comprehensive programme of engagement with educational and community groups.

The Synge exhibition was also the end of an era. It exposed serious weaknesses on the part of senior managers, who were either unwilling or unable to engage with projects of this complexity and quality. That brought all sorts of difficulties to a head and, in June 2010, senior management decided to make the post of Visual Arts Director redundant .

The board of directors agreed,  Johanne Mullan amongst them. True, at the time Siamsa had more managers than it needed or could afford and the visual arts could, in theory, have been absorbed by the existing management team. As it happened the visual arts programme was dismantled.

Now you see … now you don’t!

The first action by Siamsa management was to cancel or revise contracts agreed with artists and partner organizations in Ireland and abroad. A major international exchange with the Don Gallery in Shanghai was cancelled on the slimmest of pretexts. Documents show how fees agreed with artists were significantly cut, amounting to a deliberate withdrawal of financial support from one of the most exposed sectors of the arts in Ireland – in the midst of a financial crisis that had wiped out many artists’ income.

This was merely the beginning of a deliberate policy of not investing in the visual arts. Seven years on there is little or no support for professional visual artists and the gallery is barely functioning as a visual arts space. Schools in the region no longer have supported access to the visual arts. It’s beginning to look like the ‘bad old days’ when contemporary visual arts were barely visible in the regions, as described by contributors to Altering States: 

Johanne Mullan was a member of the board of directors of Siamsa Tíre while all this was going on.  I emailed her and asked her how she squared her criticism of the lack of investment in professional personnel and appropriate spaces in arts centres and theatres in the “regions” with her role in dismantling the visual arts infrastructure in Kerry. Her reply: “I am happy to bring your opinions to the Siamsa Tíre board.” I’m thinking chocolate teapots but Mullan has a point:  investment in the arts doesn’t just happen, it is a consequence of individual and collective decisions taken by management and approved by boards of directors.

Jimmy’s Chocolate Teapot

There is a wider context that needs to be considered here. Siamsa received €332,000 in public funding in 2016. It is part of regional infrastructure of publicly funded organisations that the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has placed at the center of its plan to “build a legacy of 2016” by making a policy objective of personal and collective creativity. “The best way to nurture the creative imagination“ the Department’s website states “is through active engagement with arts and culture.”

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Heather Humphreys T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, launching the Creative Ireland Programme. Photo:  Departmental website.

The Government has also launched Realising Our Rural Potential, a plan to mobilise economic, social and cultural resources in the regions with the aim of “improving the lives of those living and working in rural Ireland.” The plans come together around the key objective of increasing access to the arts and enhancing cultural facilities in rural communities.

And that is a problem that exercised all the contributors to Altering States:  how is active engagement with arts achieved at a local and regional level? Who calls the shots? Who is accountable? Who pays the Piper? Siamsa Tíre is a really interesting case. The Department of Arts etc. replaced the Arts Council as the primary funder of Siamsa Tíre in 2015, a move brokered by Jimmy Deenihan, then Minister for Arts and the local Fine Gael TD. It was a brazen act of clientilist patronage that politicised arts funding in an unprecedented way.

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Siamsa in 1991: the good ole days.

As part of the deal agreed between Deenihan, the Department, and the Board of Siamsa Tíre, the organisation ceased trading as an Arts Council supported arts centre and became a venue that “provides theatre and exhibition facilities to third parties” (see Directors’ Report and Financial Statements for 2015). What does that mean in practice?  The current visual arts programme comprises a one person exhibition and a touring show produced by “a third party,” pretty much the same level of activity as the year before.

Lack of money is not the issue here. Deenihan sweetened the transfer deal with an increase of 33% in funding, from €225,000 under the Arts Council to €300,ooo from the Department of Arts etc. A further €32,000 per annum is provided by Kerry County Council.

The real issue is the level of investment that is decided by management and approved by the board of directors. It begs the question: what percentage of €332,000 in public funding did Siamsa allocate directly to the support of artists and opportunities for public engagement in 2016? At a guess, I would say around 1%.

That raises all sort of questions about the viability of the Department’s plan to use the ‘regional’ resources like Siamsa Tíre to “nurture the creative imagination” in rural Ireland. Once again, sadly, a chocolate teapot comes to mind. I can’t help thinking that Jimmy Deenihan was thinking along the same lines at the end of the last election count.

Next up: The National Folk Theatre of Ireland: you can’t be serious?

Fadó Fadó: Once upon a time, in Tralee, there was a folk theatre …

Jeremiah Molneaux (1883–1967) or Gerry Munnix as he was known locally was born in 1883 was a dance teacher in North Kerry who inspired the house style of the National Folk Theatre. Molyneaux’s style is often described as earthy, as the dancer performs close to the ground. He is dancing with dancing with Sheila Bowler.Source: Sharon Phelan: www.pdst.ie/sites/default/files/Dance%20manual.doc

Jeremiah Molneaux (1883–1967) or Gerry Munnix as he was known locally was a dance teacher in North Kerry who inspired the house style of the National Folk Theatre. The “Munnix” style is “often described as earthy, as the dancer performs close to the ground.”  Gerry Munnix is shown dancing with dancing with Sheila Bowler in this photograph.

SLIM PICKINGS AT THE HOME OF THE NATIONlONAL FOLK THEATRE, TRALEE.

A show celebrating 40 years of costume design in Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland is a curious affair. There is very little to see and even less to get excited about, which suggests that all is not well in the National Folk Theatre.

What’s new? “The trouble with Siamsa is …” is one of those awful conversation openings that I became accustomed to when I worked as Visual Arts Director of the National Folk Theatre or “Siamsa” for short. I left Siamsa in 2010 but people still come up to me and say “The trouble with Siamsa is …” Two years or so ago I was stopped in Foynes – an hour up the coast from Tralee – when an artist pulled in and began to berate me about the management of the visual arts in Siamsa, even though she was well aware that I had left the place some time ago. It still goes on. A founding member recently lamented the demise of the company. A conversation in Tralee last Monday was more gentle in style but the same in focus: The trouble with Siamsa is … that it doesn’t work, it is a failed artistic enterprise. It’s hard to escape any other conclusion looking at this exhibition.

I have to declare my position here. I started in Siamsa in 1995 – fadó fadó or a long time ago. By 2010 I had built an innovative commission-based, visual arts programme with a national and international reach. In 2010 there were active collaborations with partners in London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Melbourne and Newfoundland, all of which was underpinned by a strong policy of engagement with local arts interests. In March of that year I went to the Board and reported that “the trouble with Siamsa was that the management of the company was incapable of operating at the level required by such projects.” It wasn’t the first time I had made the point – marketing was a constant issue – but it was the last. The board meeting happened on a Thursday evening and on the following Monday I was told by the CEO that the post of Visual Arts Director was being made redundant and my employment was being terminated. I was expecting it and a reasonable redundancy settlement enabled me develop projects as a freelance curator operating as curator.ie. Life goes on.

As far as Siamsa goes, the visual arts programme of 2010 was dismantled and my work was erased from the record of the company – the visual arts archive on the website begins in June 2010, the month that I left (ironically, the last show I curated with Maurice Galway was called Wisdom, a collaboration with New York based photographer Andrew Zuckerman [Wisdom]). The breach was total it seems.  In 2014 I wasn’t invited to the formal celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the company. None of that comes as a surprise. It pretty much sums up the negative management style that has, apparently, left Siamsa increasingly isolated.

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Fadó Fadó: Siamsa in its heyday: scenes from Broadway, the ‘classic’ Siamsa repertoire and a visit by President Mary Robinson. (Source: Siamsa) Martin Whelan and I are shown meeting Mary and Nicholas Robinson. Also featured are Pat Hanafin,  and the late, much beloved Seánie Mahony, performers who featured on the logo of the company for years.

Conflict was nothing unusual in Siamsa. Since 1991 – when the permanent home of the National Folk Theatre was opened in Tralee – the company has been torn between the conservatism of its folk culture founders, the mass tourism focus of its first general manager, the amateur musical theatre background of many of the company and, significantly, the dependence on Arts Council funding to maintain the company ‘out of season.’  Two things tipped these rivalries into open conflict. The first was the arrival of Riverdance in May 1994. The second was the sudden death of Martin Whelan in 2002. Martin was an inspirational General Manager who was promoted to CEO on the retirement of founding artistic director Fr. Pat Ahern.

Riverdance was an opportunity and a threat. It became the de-facto national ‘folk dance’ company which threatened Siamsa’s status, as well as its ambitions as an international touring company. On the other hand it focussed attention on Siamsa as a full-time folk dance company at a time when the idea of locality was gaining ground in response to flattening effect of globalisation in the arts.

 Jack Lyons, pictured in Teach Siamsa Finuge shortly after the building was completed.

Passing on the torch: Jack Lyons in Teach Siamsa, the first training centre established by Siamsa founder Fr. Pat Ahern. Lyons was one of Molyneaux’s finer pupils and he agreed to have the ‘Munnix” style videotaped in 1983, when he could only dance with the aid of a chair. 

To benefit from this attention Siamsa needed to develop its repertoire and professionalise its practice, especially if it was to compete with Riverdance and the performance standards that it set for the sector. At the same time it needed to maintain the highly successful tourism product that was the ‘Summer Season’ – nightly performances of the repertoire for coach tours between May and October. This was a highly lucrative business and remains the mainstay of the organisation’s output to date. The business is driven largely by commission paid to coach tour operators and depends on a particular type of folk theatre ‘product.’ Art and tourism had to be balanced in terms of the home market.

The international market was a much tougher problem. The apparent lack of discipline and amateurish standards that seemed to be a feature of all Siamsa tours were brutally exposed on a tour to the Ford Theatre in Washington in November 1999. This was intended to relaunch Siamsa on the American stage but it failed, leaving the international market to Riverdance and Riverdance-style ‘entertainments.’ Siamsa may have been “more authentic” (John Sheehan) but it couldn’t compete on an international level. This was to cost the company dearly in terms of revenue that could have been generated from international touring: in 2011, for instance, Kerry based Ceol Chiarraí Teoranta  – a Riverdance-style ‘entertainment much derided in Siamsa – recorded a profit of €5.9m on a turnover of €13m. (Irish Examiner)

Meanwhile, back in Tralee, efforts continued to develop the repertoire in-house but each new show was more dismal than the last. There were exceptions. Mary Nunan’s choreography ensured that Clann Lir (1999)  made the grade but creative disagreement, poor governance, creeping nepotism and the growing influence of Tralee Musical Society began to limit the company’s capacity to respond to the challenges it faced. As the pressure mounted Martin Whelan died of a heart attack, at the age of 52. The suddden loss of leadership quickly developed into a crisis that rolled on for years, a period of intense and damaging infighting that culminated in the disastrous production that was Moriarty.

Since 1994 the future of Siamsa had rested on its ability to re-invent itself ‘post-Riverdance’ and produce shows that could justify the claim to being the national folk theatre, a creative cultural enterprise supported by the Arts Council. Moriarty was intended to be that show. Produced by Karl Wallace, CEO, and directed by Jonathan Kelliher, Artistic Director, the show flopped, with something like 38 people attending a gala performance at the end of a week-long run in April 2009. In many ways this was the inglorious end of Siamsa Tíre as a creative enterprise and  the poor attendance seemed to signal the final break with its support base locally. Amazingly, this seemed to go unnoticed or unheeded by the board, a point which raises all sorts of question about the governance of the company.   

Moriarty has, it seems, sunk without trace and the company has done very little since – Joanne Barry’s Imigéin (2013) being a notable exception. That lack of productivity is reflected in the exhibition of costumes that finishes this week, after a five month run. It features selected costumes from five shows which are supposed illustrate the work of the company over 40 years – Moriarty doesn’t feature nor, curiously, any show directed by current Artistic Director Jonathan Kelliher

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Slim pickings: an exhibition of 40 years of costume from the National Folk Theatre, Tralee. (Photo: Ciarán Walsh)

It’s a sparse show, with a small number of costumes on show. Documentary photographs from various performance are too small to have impact and the collection of masks is a curious addition that underscores the lack of impact of the exhibition as a whole. If this is the history of the National Folk Theatre as expressed in costume, then one cannot help but think of the emperor’s new clothes.

Apart from that, the exhibition has displaced visual arts activity in the gallery for almost half a year, not that there is much activity anyway. There have been three shows to date in 2015, including an exhibition of work by local amateur painters that ran for over 2 months. That level of inactivity hardly matters anymore as Siamsa is no longer subject to Arts Council oversight in terms of its programming.  In an act of apparent political patronage Jimmy Deenihan, the local Fine Gael T.D. acting as Minister for Art, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, transferred responsibility for the state funding of Siamsa from the Arts Council – a statutory agency that was designed to limit political interference in state funding of the arts – to his own Department on the basis that it is a national cultural institution; increasing its funding by around 3% in 2014 by the way. The minister was sacked shortly afterwards and it remains to be seen whether his replacement Heather Humphries can actually see the emperor’s new clothes, or whether she can tell the difference between a low grade tourism product and a national cultural  institution. Either way, the trouble with Siamsa is … that the National Folk Theatre appears to have left home Fadó Fadó.

Monumental Errors

The problem with Public Art, Michael Warren's sculpture

The controversial Gateway sculpture that has cast long shadows over the streets of Dun Laoghaire for six years was removed towards the end of April 2009. The monument was dismissed as an eyesore by many. (comment on Flickr)

The problem with “public” art

The above post on Flicker brutally sums up the conflict over contemporary works of art that are placed in public places by local authorities and other agencies. In this case the sculpture, by the respected Irish artist Michael  Warren, was commissioned by “developer Eddie Sweeny under the Per Cent for Art Scheme, and erected in 2002 close to the Pavilion retail and theatre complex and Dún Laoghaire’s 19th-century county hall” ( Irish Times). The Per Cent For Art Scheme allows for a percentage of the cost of public capital works to be spent on an artistic feature.

The sculpture was removed in 2009 during work on the new library in Dún Laoghaire  but it was not replaced when this work was completed. It appears that it is being ‘returned’ to the artist in exchange for another work in a deal brokered by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLRCC), although the Council declined to comment on the exchange” according to the report by Fiona Gartland.

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Richard Serra, 1981. Tilted Arc ( Source)

Part of the problem was Warren’s choice of material. Corten steel is an industrial material that became popular in large scale architectural and sculptural projects in the 1970s. It suited outdoor because it forms a corrosion resistant surface or patina and, its angular, industrial look was an important part of its aesthetic appeal. Its use was pioneered by the American artist Richard Serra  in the 1970s with a series of site specific sculptures that are monumental in scale and strikingly industrial in contrast to their surroundings: in the way that Michael Warren’s scupture contrasts with “Dún Laoghaire’s 19th-century county hall.”

Controversy was inevitable. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was erected in the Federal Plaza in New York City in 1981 but, following a public vote, the sculpture was dismantled and the material used for scrap. Serra wasn’t happy: “To remove the work is to destroy it” he said. Warren’s scuplture won’t be scrapped, it’s on its way to an alternative site in the UK and the site specific references implied by the title will be lost.

Eilís O'Connell, Great Wall of Kinsale, 1988 (Photo: Southern Star).

Eilís O’Connell, Great Wall of Kinsale, 1988 (Photo: Southern Star).

Warren isn’t the first artist to run up against local authorities and their idea of “public” art. In 1989 the Arts Council wanted to promote public art as a showcase for contemporary sculpture.  It commissioned The Great Wall of Kinsale from Eilís O’Connell at a cost of £22,000, making it the biggest  public art commission to date. The Arts Council had “awarded” the sculpture to the town in recognition of its recent success in the Tidy Towns Composition.

It was an ambitious project and the influence of Serra was obvious, both in the use of Corten steel and the imposing scale of the piece. This was a bold statement, a statement that was meant to define “public” art in terms of contemporary, professional arts practice.It was lost on the members of Kinsale Urban District Council (KUDC). A campaign was begun to remove the sculpture. It was a nasty, divisive campaign. I was covering it for CIRCA Art Magazine (Issue 46) and witnessed at first hand the bullying tactics of people campaigning against the perceived elitism of the professional art community and its attempts to impose its values on the plain people of Ireland. I was also involved in a public art “education” campaign funded by the Arts Council.  It was a close fought campaign and a decision by UDC to remove the sculpture was narrowly deferred after a  Kathleen Watkins, a member of the  Arts Council, personally addressed the UDC on the evening that it was expected to vote to “destroy” the sculpture.

Protesting Art: Protesters outside Limerick City Gallery of Art, from Sean Lynch's 'rocky Road To Dublin' project 2011/12.

Protesting Art: protesters outside Limerick City Gallery of Art, from Sean Lynch’s ‘Rocky Road To Dublin’ archival project  and exhibition 2011/12 (Sean Lynch).

That’s the good news. The UDC began to treat the sculpture as a public hazard, tampering with the sculpture to prevent people interacting with it (climbing on it)  and carried out changes to make it more acceptable – painting over the Corten steel.  O’Connell has produced  The Contemporary Condition of The Great Wall of Kinsale for Seán Lynch’s Rocky Road To Dublin project in 2011, an exhibition that documents controversies that rocked the Irish art world in the 1970s and 1980s mostly ( an exhibition guide is available here). O’Connell also told the Irish Times that the sculpture was destroyed by Kinsale UDC in contravention of the Berne Convention for the protection of Literary and Artistic Works when it  painted the surface and added water features, railings, flower pots and barriers against the artist’s wishes.

30 years on, little has changed, except for the level of opposition to the destruction of public artworks by leading Irish artists. The campaign to remove what is left of O’Connell’s sculpture continues intermittently and Michael Warren’s “Gateway” has been removed with little or no controversy. Significantly, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLRCC) has refused to comment, despite the fact that it has an arts office thats administers a public art scheme and is responsible for promoting contemporary arts in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown.

REPRO FREE Haley O'Sullivan 2013 Rose of Tralee with New Zealand Rose Lisa Bazalo , Western Canada Catherine Joyce , Donegal Rose Tamara Payne , Texas Rose Cyndi Crowell , Washington Rose Allison Wetterauw and Perth Sinead Lehan . Roses and minister Donohoe TD arive to officially unveiled the Roses sculpture on the Tralee Bypass today . Photo By : Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD © Tralee Co Kerry Ireland Phone Mobile 087 / 2672033 L/Line 066 71 22 981 E/mail - info@dwalshphoto.ie www.dwalshphoto.com PRESS INFO - Minister Donohoe unveils Roses Sculpture on Tralee Bypass . Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport, Mr. Paschal Donohoe TD officially unveiled the Roses sculpture on the Tralee Bypass on Monday, August 18th 2014.ÔThe RosesÕ sculpture which consists of three red roses on their stems was created by Mayo sculptor, Rory Breslin, as part of the Percent for Art Scheme for the Tralee Bypass. Kerry County Council also provided funding for the project.Situated beside the roundabout linking the Tralee Bypass to the N22 Killarney road, the Roses sculpture highlights the well-known symbol of the Tralee area. It also links to the famous Rose of Tralee song which speaks of William MulchinockÕs love for Mary OÕConnor, who was employed a maid by the Mulchinock family.Speaking at the official unveiling of the sculpture, Minister Donohoe congratulated all involved in both the construction of the Tralee Bypass and also in the creation of the sculpture. The Minister pointed to the success of the Tralee Bypass in diverting through traffic from Tralee town centre and reducing travel times for motorists in the area.Speaking at the unveiling Minister Donohoe said: ÔIt is important that we continue to support our artists through the Precent for Art scheme, which allows for a portion of the cost of a public infrastructure project to be ring-fenced for the commissioning of a work of art. ÒIconic installations such as this very quickly become a symbol of the area, and t

Unveiling the “Roses” sculpture located on the newly opened Tralee bypass .
Photo By : Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD ©

Has Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council turned its back on ambitious public art works like “Gateway”?  Or is it staying quite in the face of opposition from elected representatives? It’s  hard to say but the destruction of Michael Warren’s sculpture raises – again – the issue of what constitutes “public” art.  The experience around the country is that local authorities and their arts offices – effectively operating as subsidiaries of the Arts Council – are promoting a particular type of public art, a populist strategy that has seen the proliferation of monumental works or “statues” that have little to do with contemporary Irish art. You could call it the ‘Molly Malone’ effect, public art that has more to do with tourism than art. The recently unveiled  “Roses” sculpture (a €70,000 commission) is typical of this trend, a trend that goes against the original objectives of the Per Cent for Art Scheme and represents a monumental failure of local authorities in respect of their remit to promote the arts a county level.

Is it art? some monumental errors in Kerry

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Town Park, Tralee.

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Tralee

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Charlie Chaplin in Waterville

Never Mind The ‘Bollix,’ this is TG4!

Fionn Foley on the set of Eipic. From Magamedia.Fionn Foley on the set of Eipic. From Magamedia.

“TG4 find that dialogue-heavy material is hard to get an audience for.”

Olaf Tyaransen, Irish Independent, 15.08.2015

Two things made the news recently that suggest that the Irish language – as a cultural institution – is in real trouble.  First, Olaf Tyaransen reports that TG4 – the state supported Irish language television station – finds “that dialogue-heavy material is hard to get an audience for.  Music and sport works for them because it’s not that language dependent.” The second piece of bad news came from the ESRI. It concluded that “while attitudes towards the Irish language are broadly positive, this does not translate into significant use of the language.”

To be fair, its not clear who Olaf Tyaransen  was paraphrasing, if he was paraphrasing any one. But the reference to sport and music are not new. A few years ago I did a workshop for new directors with Gréasán na Meán and it was based on more or less the same audience analysis. Essentially, we were being asked to come up with new ideas for Irish language obs-doc (observational documentary) TV that would get around the “dialogue-heavy” issue. These ideas were to be shoe-horned into a formula devised for a slot on Sunday evenings and a Gaeltacht audience.

There was a distinct impression that TG4 was desperately in search of an audience or, to put it another way, a formula for an audience that was not necessarily interested in Irish language “dependent” television.  That takes us back to Olaf Tyaransen. He describes how Magamedia are using  music and ‘bad’ language as a strategy to attract a young audience to a ‘drama’ based on the rebellion of 1916: “So, with Eipic (Epic) the music is almost like a trojan horse. You get them in through that and they’ll stay [and] We got a good few ‘f**ks,’ a ‘bollix,’ and there’s a ‘pr**k’ or two thrownin.” The latter half of the quote comes from Mike O’Leary whose original script in English has been translated into Irish, minus the ‘c**ts.’

Péig it ain’t – but will it work? Maybe. The company behind Eipic also produced the “critically acclaimed” Corp + Anam, and they have a budget of 1 million Euro of public broadcast funding to boot. It can’t be any worse than some of the other strategies adopted by TG4: the history of the cup of tea, or the place of the donkey in Irish culture for instance. Or the current trend in presenter led “road-trip” documentaries like Cé a chonaigh i mo theachsa? or An Lá a Rugadh Mé? To be fair – again – this is not confined to TG4. Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way on RTE is typical of that ‘genre’ and has gotten a fair amount of drubbing, mainly because of the constraints of the format (John Boland). This kind of formula driven ‘documentary’ making can result in some real horrors. Have a look at this clip form An La a Rugadh Mé:

Is this the world television programme ever?

On the face of it the idea of programme based on Harry McGee (media savvy Political Correspondent) and Alan Dukes (former govt. minister and chairman of the most toxic bank in Ireland) going through newspaper archives in the National Library of Ireland would have been a must-see, but this is really terrible. The hyped Pathé-style commentary, the relentlessly perky tone, and busy-never-mind-the-remote-control chopping of content makes its treatment of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp utterly perverse: no more so than the transition from a chorus line to the site of the Sachsenhausen museum and camp. How did TG4 ever release this? What were Harry McGee and Alan Dukes thinking? Whatever it was, it has been totally lost in the translation of a potentially intriguing story about history, journalism,and politics into format-driven “infotainment” of the most surreal kind.

Never mind the content, this is television – Irish language style.

A couple of weeks ago research published by the Gaeltacht Authority suggested that the majority of people living in 134 out of the 155 areas currently defined as Gaeltacht (primarily Irish Speaking) districts have given up on Irish (Welcome to the Galltacht). Now it seems that the television station tasked with keeping the language alive and relevant has a preference for  content that is “not that language dependent.” Is it any surprise that Dr Marike Darmody of the ESRI has concluded “it is hard to see how the Irish language can flourish in future”.

 

Photographs were taken: documenting the second famine in Connemara.

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The origins of social documentary photography in Ireland: Part 2.

This photo was taken a couple of years ago. I was travelling between Rossaveel and Maam Cross, on my way to Leenane. The road travels through an upland wilderness of bogs and small lakes, a landscape that is typical of Southern Connemara. It reminded me of a shot taken by Marguierite Mespoulet in 1913, probably to the west on the coast road to the village of Carraroe.

Mespoulet Carraroe

Maison isolée, Sud du Connemara, Irlande, 31 mai 1913. Autochrome de Marguerite Mespoulet (inv.A 3 664).© Musée Albert-Kahn – Département des Hauts-de-Seine

Mespoulet had been commissioned by Albert Kahn to document ‘peasant’ life in the remote west of Ireland. She was using the newly developed autochrome process to shoot what are probably the first colour photographs taken in the west of Ireland. Mespoulet left Galway and headed for Connemara on 31 May, travelling along a well established tourist route. She never got there. She was stopped in her tracks by reports of an outbreak of typhoid that was sweeping the islands of southern Connemara. She took this shot of a thatched cottage. “A little to the north  of the place where this small house was taken” she wrote “the people are dying like flies from typhoid fever.”

Typhoid in Connemara was nothing new but in 1913 the cause of recurring outbreaks of fever was the subject of a row between the Irish Independent (nationalist) and the Irish Times (unionist) newspapers. An article published in the Irish Independent on May 26, 1913 accuses the Irish Times of publishing an editorial that was intended to minimise reports of a “plague” in Connemara. It included this quote from the editorial:

“[Typhoid] has made its appearance upon a few islands off Southern Connemara , miles removed from the tourist routes, in Gorumna, Lettermore , and Lettermullen, which have been described as ‘plague spots,’ the peasants are huddled in hovels that pass for houses, and they draw water from stagnant pools.”

The correspondent for the Irish Times claimed that poor housing and lack of clean water were to blame for renewed outbreaks of fever, but argued that talk of an “epidemic’ was not justified by the figures. In a dispensary area of almost 10,000 persons there were five fatal fever cases and 40 more cases notified. He (presumably) drew comparisons with other parts of Connemara  “where things are more favourable, or at least not quite so unpleasant,”  highlighting the fact that in the “plague centre” people shared their hovels with pigs “who were practically members of  the household.”  The peasants, it appears, were the agents of their own misfortune.

Indo Master 620

The Irish Independent took issue with this. A correspondent had stated in an earlier article (May 15)  that “If corroboration of the case [that there was a fever plague in Connemara] and the graphic photographs reproduced in our  columns were required, it would be found abundantly in the immediate response to, and commendation of our appeal by those who know the distress and the appalling  conditions of the stricken locality.” The Irish Independent criticised the callous bureaucracy of government and sanitary authorities, accusing them of placing the islanders in imminent danger of absolute extermination through shameful neglect.

The Irish Independent  also published an eyewitness account of conditions in Connemara. It was written by a special correspondent of the Connacht “Tribune.” He had motored with the local M.P. (Wm. O’Malley) to Carraroe, where he met the parish priest (Healy). They went on  Bealdangan and picked up the local doctor (O’Kelly). They then went to the “little hut” of John Lee where they met the Chief Secretary (Birrell), who was on a tour of inspection.

A halftone reproduction of this hut was featured on The Irish Independent  Magazine Page on May 14, 1913. It was printed under the headline

A halftone reproduction of John Lee’s “hut” was featured on The Irish Independent  Magazine Page on May 14, 1913. It was printed under the headline “Peasants Appalling Plight, Fever Stricken Connemara.”

Lee’s family was one of 800 hundred families trying to subsist on patches of potato scattered across  “the wilderness of rock and bog.” His 17 year old son had died in April and another child was in the fever hospital in Oughterard:

“The house stood about seven feet high, and was without an aperture of any kind, save the small door …We entered this 11 feet by 8 apartment that constituted the entire interior, and growing accustomed to the darkness, we recognised that it was practically devoid of furniture … It was, declared Mr. Birrell, the worst dwelling he had ever seen.

Where had he been? People like John Lee and his family had been dying in a famine that had started during the “crisis of 1879” and had continued more or less for over 30 years. On December 13, 1879 The Illustrated London News published the following illustration of the “Bog-Trotters of Ballintober:”

Bogtrotters

IRISH SKETCHES: BOG-TROTTER’S CABIN, BALLINTOBER BOG, ROSCOMMON. – SEE PAGE 558, Supplement to The Illustrated London News, Dec. 13, 1879, p. 557. Collection of Ciarán Walsh.

The accompanying article stated that:

The agricultural  disadvantages of Connaught are not to be denied, and we hear without surprise of the distressed condition of small farmers in that part of the island … Here [Ballintober] are still to be found some of the genuine “bog-trotters,” a class of peasants living in squalid poverty by the scanty produce of small plots of ground and wages by field labour, where no farmer has capital to give them employment. Our artist’s sketch of one of their wretched cabins, with the poor man and his children waiting for their dinner of potatoes to be boiled over a turf fire, outside the dwelling, by the comfortless care of the wife and mother, is a sorry picture of Irish rural life. There are probably a hundred thousand people in Ireland whose condition is not much better.

Some 20 years later the same conditions were documented in Connemara, and again in 1913. The tone of The Illustrated London News commentary is not all that different from the Irish Times editorial of 1913. Complacency  and official inaction was the order of the day. In an effort to shock people out of their complacency photographs were taken inside the “hovels” of the starving peasants in Gorumna in 1898. The intention was to prove that reports of a famine in Connemara were not exaggerated, that people were indeed starving to death in the west and southwest of Ireland. These photographs were published by the Mansion House Committee established by Lord Mayor Tallon. It was a remarkable event that signalled that social documentary photography had arrived in Ireland.

Next: In search of the “The Starving West.”

Information / References

Marguerite Mespoulet: http://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.fr/archives-de-la-planete/mappemonde/europe/irlande/

Ballintober / Cluain Bhríde in Roscommon is on the R367, a minor road heading northeast from the N60 Roscommon to Castlerea road, just before the village of Ballymoe. The river Suck meanders through extensive boglands on the Galway / Roscommon Border. The railway line runs through bogland in Cleaboy, just under two kilometres southwest of Ballintober, crossing the R367 at 53.7031629,-8.4184402

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The Horror And The Curiosity

Charles R. and John Browne, 1893,  Group of women and Girls Inishbofin, from the Photograph albums of Charles R. Browne, TCD. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Charles R. and John Browne, 1893, Group of women and Girls Inishbofin, from the Photograph albums of Charles R. Browne, TCD. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

THE ORIGINS OF SOCIAL DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY IN IRELAND: PART1

Alfred Cort Haddon visited North Connemara in July 1890 and it left  a distinct impression of sterility, stones & starvation.” He neatly summarised the relentless famine that was endured by the cottier class right up to the end of the 19th century and, in some places, into the early 20th century. This was to become the object of  intense curiosity in the illustrated press: a morbid fascination that has its roots in groundbreaking reports published in the Illustrated News between 1847 and 1850. These reports would, in turn, provide the ‘horrific’ foundation for two of the main tropes of social documentary photography as it developed in the west of Ireland from the 1880s onwards: the wretched hovels of the Irish peasantry and  the “distressful” condition of women.

James O'Mahony, Mullins Hut, at Scull, published in THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS, Feb. 13, 1847. from the collection of Ciarán Walsh.

James O’Mahony, Mullins Hut, at Scull, published in THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS, Feb. 13, 1847. from the collection of Ciarán Walsh.

The Illustrated London News begins its coverage of the famine in West Cork in 1847 with the following declaration:

With the object of ascertaining the accuracy of the frightful statements received from the West, and of placing them in unexaggerated fidelity before our readers, a few days since, we commissioned our Artist, Mr. James Mahoney, of Cork, to visit a seat of extreme suffering, viz., Skibbereen and its vicinity; and we now submit to our readers the graphic results of his journey …

The report continues:

A specimen of the in-door horrors of Scull may be seen in the annexed sketch of the hut of a poor man named Mullins, who lay dying in a corner upon a heap of straw, supplied by the Relief Committee, whilst his three wretched children crouched over a few embers of turf, as if to raise the last remaining spark of life. This poor man, it appears, had buried his wife some five days previously, and was, in all probability, on the eve of joining her, when he was found out by the untiring efforts of the Vicar, who, for a few short days, saved him from that which no kindness could ultimately avert. Our Artist  assures us that the dimensions of the hut do not exceed ten feet square; adding that, to make the sketch, he was compelled to stand up to his ankles in the dirt and filth upon the floor.

In 1849 The Illustrated London News followed up on this report up with a series of seven illustrated articles on the operation of the newly introduced Poor Law in Ireland, concentrating on Kilrush but covering west and north Clare, Connemara and Clifden as well. The report published on 22 December contained an illustration that was to become – probably -the most iconic representation of famine in Ireland, a sketch of Bridget O’Donnell and her children.

bridget_odonnell

40 years on the pattern repeats itself in the coverage of the “Second Famine” that followed the “crisis” of 1879 and reached a peak in 1898 in Connemara and in the South West of Ireland. There was a difference though, James O’Mahony’s pioneering illustrations were to be replaced by a series of graphic photographs. Was this the beginning of Social documentary photography in Ireland?

To be continued.

Photographs were taken: The origins of social documentary photography in Ireland: Part 2.


To read the Illustrated London News articles online go to:

https://viewsofthefamine.wordpress.com/illustrated-london-news/sketches-in-the-west-of-ireland/

Welcome to the Galltacht

The photo shows the cover of the Buntús Cainte record label released by Gael Linn in the 1960s.I - Ciarán Walsh of www.curator.ie - was in the attic the other day looking for records to play on a recently recovered record player when I came across an ancient copy of Buntús Cainte, the Irish language instructional programme that was broadcast by Radio Teilfís Éireann --  the national radio (Raidió) and television (Teilifís) station of Ireland (Éireann) –  from 1967 to 1969. Gael Linn issued the record to complement the series.

Buntús Cainte: So – you wanna save the Irish Language

Welcome to the Galltacht

I was in the attic the other day looking for records to play on a recently recovered record player when I came across an ancient copy of Buntús Cainte, the Irish language instructional programme that was broadcast by Radio Teilfís Éireann —  the national radio (Raidió) and television (Teilifís) station of Ireland (Éireann)   from 1967 to 1969. Gael Linn issued the record to complement the series. It must have been thirty years old not as old as Wish You Were by  Pink Floyd which, if I remember correctly was bought in a second hand shop in Richmond St in 1978 courtesy of my first paypacket from the Dept of Justice.  Nostalgia! Either way I thought that Buntús Cainte might just come in handy – again  given the news. The demise of Irish as a living language had just been announced on the web and people were wondering what could be done about it. Revive Buntus Cainte?

It’s not often that you  browse a story and  see the same headline repeated across all platforms. The breaking news  was that the “Decline of Irish as spoken language was ‘worse than previously thought.’” The Hibernian Brotherhood blog  bucked the trend by boldly declaring “Ireland for the Irish” but really toed the line and posted a link to the a story about the “Decline of Irish as spoken language ‘worse than previously thought.”

The story was as brief as it was predictable. The Irish language is in decline. The “shocking” news was contained in a study commissioned by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the organisation tasked with the economic, social, and cultural development of districts where Irish is spoken more than English, that is Gaeltachts. The study showed that by 67% or more of the population spoke Irish on a daily basis in just 21 of the 155 electoral divisions in the Gaeltacht.  Within 10 years all 155 divisions will have dropped below the 67% threshold of a “living language.”

The reaction was as muted as it was predictable. “The end is nigh. Irish is on last legs as living language” wrote Donal Nolan in the Kerryman while the national version of the Kerryman, the Irish Independent, warned that by 2025 the Irish language  that “will not be used as the primary dialect anywhere in the country” in a piece written by Daniel MacDonald. 

Folklore recording

 Dialect is an interesting choice of wording. The difference between Gaeltacht Irish and School Irish — its poor half-cousin in the towns – has been narrowing for years. Anyone who has worked in the Gaeltachts will have seen the relentless progress of English and despaired of the ability of Irish to handle the linguistic demands made by modern globalised  communications and social media in particular. “Fócasáil an ceamara, lad” sums up the “spotty” language of that developed in the space between the Gaeltacht, the land of the Gael, and the Galltacht, the land of the foreigners where the townies and other non-native speakers live.

The Irish village of Ballymaclinton epitomised the Galltacht and the creeping Anglicisation of Irish society that was denounced by Douglas Hyde in a speech delivered to Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, on 25 November 1892. The Gaeltachts were established by the Free State as a bulwark against, and a cure for Anglicisation. All the resources of the state were devoted to the reversal of Anglicisation and the revival of the Irish language. The Gaeltachtachtaí or Gaeltachts were culturally and, to a lesser extent, economically advantaged (the deontas) in order to advance the ‘Irish Ireland’ project. The rest of us were schooled in compulsory Irish and sent to the Gaeltacht during the summer to learn the real thing. Now that the majority people living in 134 out of the 155 areas currently defined as Gaeltacht districts have given up on Irish, what happens?

More De-Anglicisation? More Resources? More Irish in Schools? More “Spotty” Irish in the media? I heard recently that parents on an island that had always been a stronghold of Irish were speaking English at home and were depending on teachers to teach Irish to their children. The study by published by Údarás na Gaeltachta confirms that but there is worse to come. It follows on other surveys that confirm what 125 odd years of ‘De-Anglicisation’ has shown: you can’t ‘school’ a living language. If in doubt have a listen to Buntús Cainte. If you haven’t got a record player, don’t worry. Its online.  Just googaláil Buntús Cainte.