Category Archives: Journalism

Jane W. Shackleton: Pioneering Photographer and Unsung Hero of the Gaelic Revival

 Bridget Mullins, Inis Mór, The Aran Islands, 1895.

Bridget Mullins stands proud and visibly pregnant beside an impressive example of a west of Ireland spinning wheel. Crude stone cottages, drystone walls and bare limestone flags provide a barren backdrop to an image that combines industry and motherhood. Her dress proclaims her ethnicity. This is the Aran Islands. Dun Aonghusa, the ancient fort of the Fir Bolg, is just about visible on the horizon. The year is 1895.

Jane W. Shackleton asked Mullins to pose with the spinning wheel outdoors, in front of a cottage. Apart from any technical requirements – stand cameras with slow lenses and negatives that required long exposures in bright daylight – this was an increasingly conventional way of photographing women in the west of Ireland. The encounter between these two women was, however, a rather unconventional and almost auto-ethnographic moment that produced a complex set of subjectivities: the bourgeois wife of a miller and the peasant wife of a tenant farmer, one Anglo-Irish and one Gaelic-Irish; the naturalised colonist and the colonised native, one Quaker and the other Roman Catholic.

It was also a practical and interested transaction. Mullins traded her ethnicity for access to a technology of representation that was way beyond her reach, economically speaking. She paid Shackleton for a copy of the photograph with a pair of hand-knit socks. Why? The cachet of having a photographic portrait is one reason but there is another reason why photographs were highly valued in place like Aran. Many islanders had emigrated to the United States and a photographic portrait, however framed, would have been an extraordinarily valuable and tangible token of affiliation for separated families (Daithí de Mórdha’s work on the family photographs of the Blasket Islanders is worth looking at in this context). Shackleton, for her part, was trading in antiquarian photography and needed the authentic, documentary ethnicity embodied in Bridget Mullins.

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Source: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Victorians in the Field

The trade between Shackleton and Mullins was much more than some sort of “bead exchange” between a tourist and a native in an exotic location. Shackleton was not a tourist. The photograph was taken during a field trip by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Society’s documentation of the excursion – from the metropolis to the ‘wild’ west – shows the extent to which photography had become integrated into fieldwork and social documentary practices of representation. This was the height of the ‘survey’ movement, an attempt by photographic and historical societies to record the traditional aspects of society throughout the UK before they were swept aside by rapid modernisation. Special attention was paid to the ‘Celtic Fringe’ and the spectacular nature of the Aran Islands had been highlighted by Alfred Cort Haddon following his first visit to the islands in 1890. The rapid expansion of industrialised and commodified photography into the middle classes in the 1880s and 1890s was a key element in this movement. The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland accumulated 20,000 photographic images in its search the for traces of past civilisation in Ireland, a collection that has only recently been recovered and restored (see RSAI). One of the photographs taken featured Alfred Cort Haddon lounging against the a wall in the complex of ruins known as the Seven Churches. Haddon and Shackleton were connected.

65 RSAI Haddon 113_001_3

Source: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Shackleton and Haddon

Shackleton visited Aran for the first time in 1891, just as Haddon was getting the Irish Ethnographic Survey off the ground. They knew one another and both were members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, a key part of Haddons network. Haddon promoted the involvement of women in field clubs and it a proficient photographer and antiquarian like Shackleton would hardly have escaped his attention. It raises the question, was her trip to Aran prompted by Haddon? There is an early photograph of men carrying a curragh that feature in the collections assembled by both Haddon and Shackleton. The authorship is unclear but this suggests that, at the very least, they were exchanging copies / slides of photographs taken in Aran.

Haddon was very different to Shackleton as far as motivation goes. Haddon was a ‘Headhunter,’ an ethnologist using craniometry to map the ancient migrations “of man” and their traces in contemporary populations. Shackleton was a humanist and her photography brought the people of Aran and their society into sharp focus against a background of political turbulence and contested identities.

Erin with Harp

Éire by Jerome Connor (1874 -1943) , Merrion Square, Dublin, erected 1976. Source: Greatacre

Mullins as Mother Ireland

The portrait of Bridget Mullins is a carefully composed and complex study of womanhood in the pre-literate and pre-capitalist society of white “savages” that lived in the most primitive part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1895. The fact that Mullins is visibly pregnant is one of the most remarkable features of this photograph and, indeed photography from tis period. I don’t know of any other Victorian photograph that represents pregnancy so explicitly. It has to be deliberate: this is Mother Ireland in the flesh. Replace the spinning wheel with a harp and you have Erin, the most enduring image produced by the Young Irelander movement of cultural nationalists that emerged after 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe. Shackleton has reified and radicalised the idea of being Irish by transforming the way women like Mullins were made visible in the metropolis.

The photograph of Bridget Mullins was copied as a slide – the heavy black border shows that this a reproduction of a glass lantern (gas powered projector) slide – and presented with supporting commentary in “magic lantern” shows in Dublin. These slideshows were hugely popular but they were more than an elitist living room entertainment for the Anglo-Irish bourgeois. This ‘technology of representation’ was transforming social, cultural and political campaigns It is hard to ignore the impact that these images of Aran must have had on the Gaelic Revival, the start of which is generally associated with Douglas Hyde’s call for the de-Anglicisation of Irish society in 1892. Shackleton’s empathy with and concern for the islanders is evident in her lecture notes. Her representation of Bridget Mullins in the performance of those slideshows must have really challenged attitudes to the recalcitrant ‘primitivism’ of the ‘native’ Irish, bringing the validity of the colonial administration of Ireland into question into the bargain. The connection between this enhanced visibility – and the visualities it created – and the increased focus on the “real’ Ireland to the West that was such a feature of the Gaelic Revival has to be more than co-incidence. It could be Shackletons legacy as a social documentary photographer.

Original glass plate negatives of photographs around Ireland by J.M. Synge. Previous reproductions were published in a book titled My Wallet, in 1971.

Nóra and Máire Nic Donnchadha, Inis Meáin, by John Millington Synge (c1899). Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Conclusion: And What About Synge?

Whether or not Shackleton’s slideshows came to the attention of an amateur photographer called John Millington Synge is not clear. Dublin always was a small place and it is hard to imagine that John Millington Synge – whose uncle had been a pastor (and a controversial one at that) on Aran – was not aware of the interest in Aran in “learned” societies like the Antiquaries. Synge arrived in he Aran Islands from Paris in the summer of 1898 and immediately bought a second hand ‘falling plate’ camera that he used to record / document life on the islands. They were meant to illustrate his account of life on the island. His account of the time he spent living amongst the peasants was to eclipse Shackleton, Haddon and many other accounts of life in the islands. Ironically, the significance of Synge’s photographs was overlooked until the centenary of his death in 2009, when they were belatedly recognised as a turning point in the imagination of Irishness, a cultural turn on the eve of revolution. (www.curator.ie / IMMA)

Likewise Shackleton’s singular contribution to the Gaelic Revival has been seriously undervalued. According to Christiaan Corlett  Jane W. Shackleton was responsible for the most comprehensive photographic documentation of the Aran Islands at the end of the 19th century but her career as a photographer was virtually unknown until Corlett published a collection of her photographs in 2012. Why? Does the answer lie in a gendered history of photography or in the victory of the romantic primitivism of Synge over antiquarianism and all other perspectives?

In search of the ‘Starving West’: TV series on social documentary photography

Uploaded by www.curator.ie: a reproduction of a photograph of an impoverish family huddled in cabin in Connemara in 1898. It is entitled

A starving Irish family from Carraroe, County Galway during the Famine . Source: Virginia University.

About 10 years go I came across this photograph. The caption suggests that it was taken during the Famine of 1845-9 in Ireland.  It wasn’t. True, it is very similar to the scenes recorded in cabins throughout the west of Ireland and graphic illustrations of such scenes were published in illustrated newspapers at the time. There is no record, however, of any photograph of people dying of starvation in the 1845-9 famine.  Indeed a photograph like this would have been impossible in the early stages of photography – invented less than a decade before the famine. As a result he photograph has been dismissed by some people as a fake, the harsh pool of light suggesting a studio staging.

STARVING WEST P1100442

I set out to look for the original and test its authenticity. I never found it, but I found the next best thing -the original document in which the photograph was first published.  The photograph is entitled ‘A Sick Family Carraroe’ and is one of 18 photographs that were published in a pamphlet entitled  ‘Relief of Distress in the West and South of Ireland, 1898.’ The photographs were taken in April during an inspection of conditions in Connemara by Thomas L. Esmonde, Inspector of the Manchester Committee. He was reacting to reports of famine in Conamara. He inspected a dozen houses in which he found people lying on the floor, covered with rags and old sacks and barely able to move from a combination of influenza and hunger.

12 The Starving west

The search for the photograph became the basis of an idea for a TV series on social documentary photography or, to put it another way, a social history of documentary photography in Ireland in the 19th century. I pitched the idea to a producer and a broadcaster in 2011 and funding was eventually secured from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in 2014 for a six part series based on my research. TG4 will begin  broadcasting Trid an Lionsa or ‘Through the Lens’ tomorrow Sunday 25 October 2015.

I haven’t been involved in in the production itself, just the research into historical social documentary photography and the people who work in this area. This material has been “translated into television” by Cathal Watters (Oíche na Gaoithe Móire) and follows the TG4 controversial format of presenter driven, on-the-road info-tainment. (http://wp.me/p56Bmf-5g).

I have no idea what to expect. Like a colleague I will be watching from behind the couch … hoping!  It’ll be interesting to see how the balance between a social history of documentary photography and ‘factual’ entertainment works out. I know some key “voices” were excluded but that is the unenviable task of a producer. Either way it promises be an intriguing televisual event and, at the very least, it should create an awareness of the rich resource that exists in photographic archives and collections around the country.

Related posts:

Jane W. Shackleton, Pioneering Photographer and Unsung Hero of the Gaelic Revival

Alfred Cort Haddon: Haddon and the Aran Islands

Famine Photography: Photographs were taken: documenting the second famine in Connemara

In memory of Mick ‘The Iron Man’ Murphy

Mick 'The Iron Man' Murphy by Barry McCarthy from the exhibition 'Blood, Sweat and Gears,' 2008

Mick ‘The Iron Man’ Murphy by Barry McCarthy from the exhibition ‘Blood, Sweat and Gears,’ 2008.

I have just learned of the death of Mick Murphy of Cahersiveen in Co. Kerry. Mick was known fondly as ‘The Iron Man’ because of his exploits in a celebrated bicycle race in 1958. Aidan O’Connor, writing in The Kerryman newspaper described Mick’s extraordinary Life:

Mick made a living as a spalpeen and a circus performer. After winning the 1958 Rás, Mick returned to Kerry to work in local quarry, breaking stones with a crowbar and sledge hammer. All the while, the Iron Man was completing daily training routines of 100-mile cycles.

Aged just 27 years, Mick Murphy retired and took the boat to England where he worked as a builder, road maker, a carnival act, boxer and a wrestler.

Mick’s training was as unconventional as his lifestyle. Having read about the important of a high protein diet, Mick drank cow’s blood and ate raw meat, well aware that this was regarded with “horror” by the people of Cahersiveen. The legend that was the ‘Iron Man’ was the starting point for an exhibition that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his victory in the Rás in 1958. The exhibition consisted of still photography by Barry McCarthy interviews recorded by film maker Chris Hurley. The impact of that exhibition is captured in Sean Mac an tSithig’s report (above) which was recorded for the main evening news.

Mick Murphy was one of the most remarkable people I worked with in Siamsa, a true folk hero. Following the broadcast of Seán’s film a lot of men who had gone through similar experiences came to the gallery and spoke movingly of their lives as emigrants and their love of cycling.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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”.

 

The War of Independents, The Legacy of Jackie Healy Rae.

Don Mac Monagles classic photograph of Jackie Healy Rae's torch lit procession during the Irish parliamentary election of 2007. Featured by Ciarán Walsh in a review of 100 years of photography by the MacMonagle family.

The War of the Independents, Jackie Healy Rae marches on parliament. Picture by Don MacMonagle, 2007.

Don Mac Monagles’ classic photo of ‘The Healy-Raes On The Move’ was taken during the election campaign of 2007. Jackie Healy-Rae flanked by his sons Danny and Michael (who ‘inherited’ the seat from his father) march through the streets of Killarney with ‘pikemen’ brandishing flaming torches. It was one of 10 photographs that Don Selected for a feature I did in the Irish Independent (27 July 2013 WEEKEND Magazine)  on 100 years of photojournalism by the MacMonagle family.

Don has documented the Healy-Raes since the 1970s. “I would consider myself non-political but I am fascinated by the Healy-Raes,” says Don. He got a tip that ‘Jackie’ was planning an old style rally to make an impact in the final week of the election. The picture went viral and a pundit reckoned that it would get Healy-Rae re-elected. It did.

Jackie Healy Rae Poster

Like Healy Rae, Fox and Blaney were of the Fianna Fáil gene pool. Gildea was a single-issue candidate and didn’t last long in national politics. As for Fox, her father whose seat she ‘inherited’ was a member of Fianna Fáil before he went independent. Harry Blaney got his brother’s seat (briefly occupied by Cecilia Keaveny) who had in turn gotten it from his father. In fact the Blaney ‘dynasty’ ran from 1927 to 2002. It started with Neal Blaney whose son Neil was expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1972. His other son Harry took Neil’s seat after his death in 1995. Confused? Well, there’s more. Niall Blaney, Harry’s son (I think) took the seat in 2002, rejoined Fianna Fáil in 2006 and resigned the seat in 2011. The seat was then taken by Sinn Féin.

The Healy Rae phenomenon may be more recent but it is as complex and dynastic as the ‘Donegal Mafia’ (as the Blaney’s political organisation was called). That’s only part of the point. The really interesting point is the battle between the margins and the centre in Irish politics. The increasing centralisation of the mainstream parties forced the likes of Healy Rae to go independent. When the independents were lucky enough to hold the balance of power they screwed the parties for all they could get in order to consolidate their positions in their constituencies, and lucrative positions they are too. In 2011 journalist Ken Foxe (Irish Daily Mail) calculated that the Healy Raes had earned €8m over 14 years ‘in salaries, expenses and contracts from the public purse.’ That is a side issue and, as Jackie Healy Rae pointed out, it was the system.

What is more interesting is the way the Healy Raes turned the institutionalised clientilism of the big parties into a very localised power base – and turned the entire system on its head in the process. As a young civil servant I was fascinated by the fact that government ministers were provided with elaborate constituency offices within government departments at taxpayers expense, a massive advantage at election time. I learned very quickly that getting around fines, housing lists, planning, education grants and jobs in state agencies mattered more to politicians than policies. As a civil servant I worked under the best/worst of the clientilist politicians of the time – Gerard Collins (FF) Jim Mitchell (FG) and Sean Doherty (FF) – although I did refuse a transfer to Doherty’s constituency office on ethical grounds. It was an interesting encounter and as well that I decided to attend NCAD on a full time basis shortly afterwards.

The nature of clientism was summed up by anthropologist Lee Komito in 1984 (The Economic and Social Review, April, 1984). ‘The political broker who intervenes on behalf of constituents to help them obtain government benefits and the client who rewards the politician with his vote has become an acceptable, and even fashionable, model of Irish political life.’ Healy Rae’s election in 1997 showed just how well that model could work for constituents in a tight Dáil and, very soon, every constituency wanted the same! The assault by independents on the mainstream parties had begun.

Jackie Healy Rae outside Dáil Éireann

from Journal.ie

 

30 years on it seems like the independents and others (32%) now stand in the way of any viable coalition. Fine Gael (19%) has become the incredible shrinking party and Labour (6%) has compromised itself out of existence. It even looks like Fianna Fáil (21%) and Sinn Féin (22%) couldn’t form a government (even if they wanted to) without the support of independents. It’s not all Jackie Healy Rae’s fault. He got lucky but the real lesson of his role in Irish parliamentary politics is that clientilist politics have wrecked a system and the rise of the independent has been driven as much by the mainstream political parties inability to take reform seriously. Political parties how are you, it’s every man for himself and Jackie Healy Rae wrote the manual.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

 

 

A nation on the march again … or just plain old déja vu?

Photo of Freddie Chute working on the restoration of the Maid of Erin, Listowel, a project managed by Ciarán Walsh of  www.cutrator.ie for artist Sean Lynch. Lynch was commissioned by Kerry County Council as part of its Public Art Funding. The photo is split, one half showing the 'Maid' stripped bare and the second half showing the 'Maid' after restoration.

Freddie Chute working on the restoration of ‘The Maid of Erin,’ Listowel, 2012.

I had something else planned for this blog but Tom Halliday’s cartoon of ‘A Nation on the March’ (Sunday Independent’s 02.11.2014) brought me back to the ‘Maid of Erin’ theme. Halliday shows ‘Liberty’ as a bare breasted ‘Maid of Erin’ leading the plain people of Ireland as they trample the political elite in a revolt over water charges. Top of the pile of the trampled is Joan Burton, leader of the Labour Party and Tanaiste or Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland.

Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (painted in 1830 to commemorate the French Revolution) reworked as  'A Nation on the March' by Tom Halliday and printed in the Sunday Independent's (02.11.2014) report of the collapse in support for the Irish Government. Halliday shows Liberty as the  bare breasted 'Maid of Erin' leading the plain people of Ireland as they trample the political elite in a revolt over water charges.

‘A Nation on the March’ by Tom Halliday, Sunday Independent 02.11.2014

Less than a week later Joan Burton was indeed ‘trampled’ by the great unwashed when she was ambushed by anti-austerity demonstrators protesting against the introduction of water charges. Amateur video footage is available on Journal.ie. It is shocking at all sorts of levels. Politics aside, this looks like an assault on a woman, pure and simple. It marked the beginning of a new and seemingly more aggressive stage in the campaign against water charges.

Joan Burton Jobstown

Screengrab of Tanaiste Joan Burton in Jobstown (Journal.ie)

Within days a  bomb threat was phoned in to the Minister for the Environment’s constituency office and the Minister of Finance was forced to make a getaway through a side door at another public event. The number of events is small and focussed on a particular campaign but a line has been crossed. Peaceful protest has morphed into ‘revolt’ or ‘thuggery’ depending on whether you are an anti-austerity activist or a member of the establishment. What is not in dispute is that the introduction of water charges is the spark that has ignited the rage that has simmered under the surface since the Irish government bailed out the banks at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Is this the beginning of The Revolution? Up to now the political / economic establishment has depended on ‘Paddy’ (as the Taoiseach / Prime Minister put it) maintaining his legendary tolerance of economic mismanagement and corruption in order to push through austerity without the democratic revolution that was promised in return. Sure, the voters could always be bought off with more promises and compromises before the next election. The voters are reasonable people after all according to Alan Kelly (Lab), Minister for the Environment (17.11.2014). Then Joan Burton was attacked. Something had snapped in Irish politics. There is a sense of genuine shock at the nature of the attack on the Labour Party leader in a Labour heartland, and everything else that followed.

The anti-austerity campaigners are unapologetic. The people have had enough. They have put aside the traditional passive aggressive “I’ll get them at the election” attitude and have risen up against the political elite. Halliday’s cartoon is a reworking of Eugene Delacroix’s celebration of the power of the people as the force behind the French Revolution. The idea of the plain people of Ireland throwing bricks and smashing things may have been ironic and even witty a week or two ago, but so too was the idea of an Irish Revolution.

Eugene Delacroix, ‘Liberty Leading the People,’ 1830, Louvre, Paris. http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/july-28-liberty-leading-people. Uploaded by Ciaran Walsh, www.curator.ie, Photographs credited © RMN, Musée du Louvre / [etc.] are the property of the RMN. Non-commercial re-use is authorized, provided the source and author are acknowledged.

Eugene Delacroix, ‘Liberty Leading the People,’ 1830, Louvre, Paris.

That was before the latest polls revealed that the political centre (represented by Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour) is in decline. Some people are predicting that thenext general election is likely to return Sinn Féin as the largest party along with over 40 independents. If this happens, then Irish politics as we know it will be finished … until the next election at least. Is this the revolution? Sinn Féin thinks so. Two years ago republicans used another version of ‘Liberty Leading the People’ to illustrate public hostility to austerity and to predict the demise of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Their version of ‘Ireland / Liberty’ on the barricades was the ‘pop’ version created by Bobby Ballagh in 1973, in anticipation of another revolution in Ireland.

 

Robert Ballagh (Irish, b. 1943) Liberty on the barricades (after Delacroix)1973 lithograph Robert BallaghIn 2012 Sinn Fein used another version of Liberty Leading the People’ to illustrate public hostility to austerity and to predict the demise of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Their version of ‘Ireland / Liberty’ on the barricades was the ‘pop’ version created by Bobby Ballagh in 1973, in anticipation of another revolution in Ireland.  Uploaded by Ciaran Wals, www.curator.ie from An Phoblacht ((http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/21858).

Robert Ballagh, Liberty on the barricades (after Delacroix), 1973, lithograph (uploaded from http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/21858).

This got me thinking about Pat McAuliffe’s ‘Maid of Erin,’ a massive cartoon in plaster on the front of a pub in Listowel, County Kerry. It is a large stuccowork that was created by the eccentric builder and plasterer in 1912. He portrayed Ireland as bare breasted ‘Maid’ surrounded by nationalist and Home Rule symbols. McAulliffe created a whole series of tableaux on shopfronts in the townl. These are probably the most underrated examples of indigenous folk art in Ireland, something that is unique in a conservative arts world that was dominated by Manchester and London and was, by and large, oblivious to modernism not to mind anything that smacked of revolutionary avant-gardism.

Pat McAuliffe's 'Maid of Erin' in Listowel is a massive cartoon in plaster on the front of a pub in Listowel, County Kerry. It is a large stuccowork that was created by the eccentric builder and plasterer Pat McAulliffe in 1912. He portrayed Ireland as bare breasted 'Maid' surrounded by nationalist and Home Rule symbols.  McAulliffe created a whole series of tableau on shopfronts in Listowel, County Kerry. These are probably the most underrated examples of indigeninous folk art in Ireland, something that is unique in a conservative arts world that was dominated by Manchester and London and was, by and large, oblivious to modernism not to mind anything that smacked of revolutionary avant gardism. This photo was taken by John Pierce in the 1970s. In 2012 the "Maid' was restored in a project mangaed by Ciarán Walsh of www.curator.ie

Pat McAuliffe, ‘Maid of Erin,’ 1912, Listowel, County Kerry.

In retrospect it seems very improbable that a sculpture of a semi- naked woman would be allowed in a conservative / rural / petit bourgeoisie town under the heel of the Catholic clergy. So what was McAuliffe getting at? The imminent achievement of Home Rule and Liberty probably. McAuliffe borrowed ideas from everywhere. He took off-the-shelf commercial mouldings and transformed them with signatory mermaids (McAullife crest) and other esoteric motifs. ‘The Maid of Erin’ is obviously a synthesis of nationalist symbolism (Harp, Round Tower, Shamrock, Hound, Sunburst) but one question always arises, why the bare breasts? I have no doubt that he was thinking of Delacroix and his version of ‘Liberty’ when he created his ‘Maid of Erin,’ just over a hundred years ago on the eve of another revolution.

MacAuliffe’s ‘Maid of Erin’ was restored in 2012. Could this be a case of Déja Vu? The first brick has been thrown. Will there be many more? Can the centre hold?

 

 

A word about the restoration ‘The Maid of Erin’

In 2012 I managed the restoration of the ‘Maid of Erin.’ for artist Sean Lynch. Lynch was commissioned by Kerry County Council as part of its Public Art Funding. Sean Lynch’s work is deals with the recovery of lost or forgotten works of arts or cultural artifacts in a way that makes us question the values embedded in these objects in terms of contemporary social+political=cultural events. ‘The Maid of Erin’ is typical.

During a previous restoration of ‘The Maid of Erin’ in 1999 a row was caused when a new owner decided to “cover her dignity”  (Howard).

Photo of Freddie Chute working on the restoration of the Maid of Erin, Listowel, a project managed by Ciarán Walsh of  www.cutrator.ie for artist Sean Lynch. Lynch was commissioned by Kerry County Council as part of its Public Art Funding. The photo is split, one half showing the 'Maid' stripped bare and the second half showing the 'Maid' after restoration.

Photo of Freddie Chute working on the restoration of the Maid of Erin, Listowel, a project managed by Ciarán Walsh of http://www.cutrator.ie for artist Sean Lynch. Lynch was commissioned by Kerry County Council as part of its Public Art Funding. The photo is split, one half showing the ‘Maid’ stripped bare and the second half showing the ‘Maid’ after restoration.

 

 

 

 

 

Synge and Sander, and the Significance of the Suit

Young Farmers 1914, printed 1996 by August Sander 1876-1964

 

I came across this photo on Tumblr recently and it reminded me of an old acquaintance that I had with John Berger – in print of course. I was an undergraduate student trying to come to terms with the ‘significance’ of the ‘suit’ in this photo.

Young Farmers was taken by August Sander in 1914 using a large format, glass plate camera with a long exposure time, a legacy of earlier formalised studio portraiture and all that that implied. It was the sixth plate in Sander’s portrait photobook Face of Our Time, published in 1929. It also appears in the first volume of Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, a photographic index of the German population based on distinct social ‘types’.

John Berger ‘the Marxist art critic’ wrote an essay about the photo in which he stated: ‘The date is 1914. The three young men belong, at the very most, to the second generation who ever wore such suits in the European countryside. Twenty or 30 years earlier, such clothes did not exist at a price which peasants could afford.’ (Berger, The Suit and the Photograph, 1980, p.30.).

Berger suggests that the tree lads are deliberately playing with the viewers expectations of the peasant ‘type’ by adopting the stance and manner of urban ‘types’, the cigarette being especially significant in this regard (adapted from text on the Tate website).

 

My wallet of photographs ; the collected photographs of J.M. Synge

 

Berger may have overstated it a little, in an Irish context anyhow. John Millington Synge took this photograph of Mairtín Mac Donnchadha in 1898, a mere 16 years before Young Farmers. Mac Donnchadha features prominently in ‘The Aran Islands’ (1907),  Synges account of life on the islands. In the book Mac Donnchadha is called  ‘Michael’ and is portrayed as a model of the primitive peasant ‘type’ found in Aran.

Justin Carville (Photography and Ireland), in a reprise of Berger’s earlier article, wrote in the(Irish Journal of Anthropology (reference below) about Synge’s account of taking the photograph.  Mairtín / Michael wanted to wear his suit, his Sunday clothes from Galway rather than the homespuns that he was photographed in. He wanted to distance himself from the ‘primitive life of the islands.’ This was evidence, according to Carville, that the islanders were ‘becoming increasingly aware of the production of their identity through the photographic image.’ In other words they understood the significance of the suit.

It seems they weren’t alone, judging by the studio portraits used by Synge (right) and Sander. At the time Synge was living in Paris on an annual allowance of £40 plus a new suit, courtesy of his landowning family. Synge, and others like, him were known to the islanders as ‘lucht na cultacha deasa,’  the people with the nice suits.

 

August Sander 1906, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964

 

 

 

Ref: “My Wallet of Photographs”: Photography, Ethnography and Visual Culture in J.M. Synge’s Aran Islands” Irish Journal of Anthropology Vol. 10 no. 1. (2007): 5-11.