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The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath: the controversy continues …

cornelius_magrath-portrait-de-longhi

Pietro Longhi, 1757, “True portrait of the Giant Cornelio Magrat the Irishman; he came to Venice in the year 1757; born 1st January 1737, he is 7 feet tall and weighs 420 pounds. Painted on commission from the Noble Gentleman Giovanni Grimani dei Servi, Patrician of Venice.” Museo di Rezzonico, Venice. Photograph: Osvaldo Böhm.

The short life of Cornelius Magrath

Cornelius Magrath was born 5 miles from Silvermines in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1737. During his adolescence, he developed a rare disorder of the pituitary gland that caused some of his bones to grow excessively. Between the ages of 15 and 16 Magrath went from 5 feet to 6 feet 8.75 inches in height. He was later described in the London Magazine for August 1752 as being of gigantic stature, but boyish and clumsily made.

His extraordinary appearance attracted a lot of attention and he was persuaded to exhibit himself. He was put on show in Bristol and London in 1753, before touring extensively in Europe. In 1857 he was in Italy, where his portrait was painted by Longhi (see above). In 1760 he became ill in Flanders and returned to Dublin where he died on May 16th. He was 23 tears of age.

In 7 years Magrath had achieved considerable fame as the ‘Irish Giant’ and his death and dissection quickly became the stuff of legend. In 1833, a report claimed that he died as a result of an injury he sustained while performing as a giant in the Theatre Royal. Numerous other legends grew up around the ‘capture’ of his body by anatomists in Dublin University, Trinity College (TCD).

maag-small-copy

A promotional print engraved by Maag in Germany in 1756 to promote appearances by Magrath. This image has been produced from the negative of a photograph made by Daniel J. Cunningham in 1891. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

In 1890, Daniel J. Cunningham’s set out to establish the truth about Magrath’s stature and dispel some of the myth’s about his short life. Cunningham presented a report to the Royal Irish Academy in 1891, which remains the definitive account of the man and his skeleton. Cunningham confirmed that Magrath suffered from acromegaly and presented evidence that he was “positively deformed” as a result of this condition.

He was not the “well-built, proportioned, straight-limbed man” with pleasing and regular features as represented by Maag in 1756 (above). Swanzy built on Cunningham’s research and published a report in 1893 that confirmed significant deformation of Magrath’s eye sockets.  This is recorded by  in Longhi in his 1757 portrait, along with the disabling condition of “knock-knee” that was described by Cunningham.

In 1902, huge crowds attended a lecture on his skeleton that was given by Cunningham in Belfast. Curiosity in Magrath remains just as strong today judging by the current controversy over the retention by TCD of his skeleton. The controversy kicked off on the History Show on RTE Radio 1 and was picked up by chat show host Joe Duffy who argued that TCD should bury the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath because it had been ‘body snatched’ and his skeleton put on public display without his consent.

The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath

The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath is no longer on public display but is still held by the School of Anatomy in TCD. It is the most famous item in a historic collection of anatomy specimens, records, and instruments that is held in the ‘Old’ Anatomy Building. The building was decommissioned in 2014 and the collection is being resolved as part of post-grad research programme managed jointly by the School of Medicine TCD, Maynooth University, Kimmage Development Studies Centre, and the Irish Research Council.

Anthropo lab 2016 P1180364 600 dpi

Ciarán Walsh reconstructing the skull measuring device developed by Daniel J. Cunningham in the 1890s. The “Dublin Craniometer” is one of a number of anthropometrical instruments that were discovered when the ‘Old’ Anatomy building in Trinity College Dublin was being decommissioned in 2014. The skull, incidentally, is a plastic model. Photo: Ciarán Walsh.

I am employed as a full-time researcher on the project and resolving ethical issues relating to the retention of human remains is a major part of the work in hand. Indeed, the research proposal had to pass rigorous ethical approval procedures in Maynooth University, the School of Medicine TCD, and the IRC before I could get access to the ‘old’ Anatomy building and the collections held therein, which include the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath.

To bury or not to bury, that is the debate.

The Magrath “case” is interesting because there is no evidence that the body snatching story, however entertaining, is true. The only contemporary account of his death states simply that “Upon death, his body was carried to the Dissecting House,” but that account was probably written by either Robert Robinson, Professor of Anatomy in TCD, or Dr. George Cleghorn, the University anatomist (see Cunningham’s 1891 report to the Royal Irish Academy).

What we can say with some certainty is that Magrath died of a wasting disease (phthisis) and it is clear from the Robinson/Cleghorn account that he was receiving medical attention at the time of his death. It records that Magrath’s “complexion was miserably pale and sallow; his pulses very quick at times for a man of his extraordinary height; and his legs were swollen.” Elsewhere, it states that his pulse beat almost sixty times a minutes “on his arrival here.”  It sounds like Magrath was being cared for in the School of Medicine TCD when he died.

The body snatching legend, best described by Hooper,  has it that Magrath was being waked when medical students, egged on by Robinson, spiked the porter and made off with his body, which was immediately dissected in secret. Such a sensational body snatching could not have escaped notice and, furthermore, the dissection was both public knowledge and uncontroversial. Historians of anatomy in TCD have always believed that the body was paid for by Cleghorn and that the acquisition of the body was legitimate and ethical by the standards of the day. The problem here is that there is no documentary evidence of Magrath having consented to dissection or the permanent display of his skeleton.

Comparative Anatomy / Anthropological Museum, MS10961-1_22

The Anthropological Laboratory in TCD in 1891, from a cyanotype or blueprint of a  photograph taken by Charles R. Browne. The laboratory ceased operations in 1903 and its collections were reorganised in 1948. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

That brings us to the contemporary issue of retention or burial. The report of the Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections (WGHR), published in 2003,  set out public policy in relation to British Museums. The authors of the report acknowledged that human remains in collections “represent a unique and irreplaceable resource for the legitimate pursuance of scientific and other research” (p. 28)  but concluded that collections of human remains in museums should be subject to the sort of regulatory frameworks being developed for health authorities and hospitals in Britain (p. 81).

One of its principal finding was the need to remove legislative barriers to repatriation or burial by British museums, effectively making the ethical disposal of human remains in museum collections its default position (p. 20, para. 58). In 2004 the introduction of the Human Tissue Act allowed nine national museums to return human remains under 1,000 years old, where they consider it appropriate to do so. The British Museum rejected an application for repatriation in 2012  on grounds other than those provided for in the legislation, which illustrates the complexity of the issues involved and the need to consider claims for repatriation or burial on a case by case basis.

In terms of regulation in Ireland, the Human Tissue Bill has been stalled since 2013 and the Inspector of Anatomy, appointed by the Medical Council in the interim, has oversight of the ‘Old’ Anatomy collections in TCD. This leaves the burial of Magrath’s remains at the discretion of the college authorities; which means that any decision will have to deal with public perception as to the “morality” of retaining identifiable human remains in collections of scientific material. That is deeply problematic, and Duffy’s attempt to frame the issue in body snatching folklore is distorting what should be a valuable and timely debate.

References: 

British Museum,2012, Request for Repatriation of Human Remains to the Torres Strait Islands, Australia. Online document: http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/management/human_remains/repatriation_to_torres_strait.aspx

Cunningham, D. (1887). The Skeleton of the Irish Giant, Cornelius MagrathThe Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, 29, 553-612. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30078824

Department of the Taoiseach, LEGISLATION PROGRAMME FOR AUTUMN SESSION 2013, Published:  18th September, 2013: http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/irish/Foilseacháin/Foilseacháin_2013/LEGISLATION_PROGRAMME_FOR_AUTUMN_SESSION_2013.html

Hooper, A. (1987). Dublin Anatomy in the 17th and 18th CenturiesDublin Historical Record, 40(4), 122-132. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30100813

Human Tissue Act 2004, UK: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/30/contents

Report of The Working Group on Human Remains, November 2003,Dept. for Culture Media and Sport, Great Britain: http://www.museumsbund.de/fileadmin/geschaefts/dokumente/Leitfaeden_und_anderes/DCMS_Working_Group_Report_2003.pdf

Swanzy, H. (1893). Note on Defective Vision and Other Ocular Derangements in Cornelius Magrath, the Irish Giant. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1889-1901), 3, 524-528. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20490478

Trinity College, Dublin, 2016, The Academic and Artistic Collections – a summary: First produced February 2010; contact and website updates March 2016: http://www.tcd.ie/artcollections/assets/pdf/TCD%20Academic%20and%20Artistic%20Collections%20summary.pdf

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.

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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.

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

exhibition P1170222 600

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.

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.

Conomara cottage 600 IMG_0816

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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