Monday, July 16, 2018

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 15 July 2018

There’s a veritable feast of Famine-related art on view in Skibbereen and its environs over the next two months. The corner-stone event, Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, features an exhibition at the Uilinn gallery in Skibbereen, opening on 19 July. It consists of 50 paintings from the collection of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut. It was shown in Dublin Castle earlier this year but its title takes on a more literal hue now that it reaches West Cork. Its curator Niamh O’Sullivan described the Great Famine “as the migration crisis of the 19th Century” and anyone viewing this exhibition and the associated shows will be struck by the contemporary resonances – not least the plight of 20th Century migrants on Lesbos and Lampedusa. On the days following the opening of this exhibition, a number of site-specific events will also take place in the surrounding area under the auspices of Ann Davoren and her team at Uilinn.

Skibbereen has long been regarded as the epicentre of the Great Irish Famine. In a travel journal written in 1847, Lord Dufferin referred to Skibbereen in the County of Cork as “the very nucleus of famine and disease”. It’s fitting then that the town should host activities that recover, record, and remind us of this shameful episode in our colonial history. A period where greedy landlords, entrenched racism and laissez-faire economics conspired to inflict a devastating famine on a country with plentiful alternative food sources.  It’s the time of the year when West Cork is busy with tourists, very many of them English, and these shows should help broadcast more widely a part of our history that many are still uncomfortable with at home and ignorant of abroad.

The Irish Famine had very little in the way of contemporary visual records or associated art. There were gross caricatures in Punch magazine (depicting Paddy’s plight as caused by his own brutish stupidity) and the sanitized drawings of Jerome Mahony in the Illustrated London News – which at least elicited empathy from a largely indifferent British public. The only contemporaneous art to depict the disaster was Daniel Macdonald’s romanticized work. Irish Peasant Children shows a chubby-cheeked trio, well clothed and seemingly carefree. Only a darkening sky in the background suggests trouble ahead. Aside from Macdonald and some of Mahony’s drawings most of the pertinent art in the Uilinn show comes from the latter half of the  20th Century and later. Two of the most persistent and effective chroniclers of the Famine are sculptors John Behan and Rowan Gillespie. Behan’s Famine Mother and Children is based on a well-known Jerome Mahony drawing called Bridget O’Donnell and Children – but Behan’s sculpture has the poignant heft of art that’s lacking in Mahony’s illustration. The most immediately impactful image on view is Lillian Lucy Davidson’s Gorta. It shows a gaunt and desperate trio burying a child in unconsecrated ground. Other striking and evocative works are Hughie O’Donoghue’s On Our Knees and William Crozier’s Rainbow’s End. O’Donoghue’s mother came from the Erris area of North Mayo, a place as devastated as West Cork was by the Famine. The artist has regularly turned to that area for inspiration and recently built a house and studio there.

Three of the associated art events are site specific and so carry with them the haunting relevance of their locales. Out past Reen Pier, near Union Hall, a narrow road leads to a large isolated property belonging to the artist John Kelly. Kelly was born in England but the family went to Australia when he was six months old. He has a Cork connection through his father who was born near Mallow. Kelly is best known internationally for his Cow up a Tree sculpture (a version of which sits on his land overlooking the sea, to the bemusement of passing sailors) but also paints and makes prints to service galleries in Melbourne, London, Cork and Dublin. Kelly has fabricated a scale model of the Tate Modern amidst the sculpted wonders that abound on his property. The Tate family’s fortunes were built initially on a green-grocery business in Liverpool. During the Famine their shops received the regular supplies of fruit and vegetable from Ireland necessary to sustain its business. A tour of the Reen Farm Sculpture Garden on the 26 July will include a reading by Jeremy Irons of the famous N. M. Cummins letter to the Duke of Wellington. The letter describes in harrowing detail what happened in the area round where Kelly has located his Tate model: “In the first six (hovels) famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse-cloth, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in fever - four children, a woman, and at what had once been a man.”

Another event that points directly to local experience around Skibbereen is Toma McCullim’s 110 Skibbereen Girls project. In 1850, 110 girls were plucked from the workhouse in Skibbereen and sent to Adelaide and Melbourne in Australia, ostensibly for domestic work. However, as there were nine men to every woman in the colony at this time, their primary role was as breeders. The project was referred to as the Earl Grey scheme after the Colonial Secretary of the time. McCullim who works as an art therapist in the Community Hospital, on the site of the old workhouse, came up with the idea of involving staff and residents in developing a permanent site specific artwork to mark this moment in history. She sees the girls removal from the workhouse as a positive thing “we can’t imagine the horrors they were leaving. It’s a story about courage and having a belief in the future.” Before their voyage each girl was given clothes, a bowl and a spoon. The significance of a spoon as a metaphor in the context of the Famine is obvious.The current hospital cares for the elderly. Staff and patients were given beeswax and asked to fashion individual spoons which would later be cast in bronze. These will be embedded in the original workhouse wall (an artwork in itself) just inside the entrance to the hospital. Viewers can stand on on a block of Australian sandstone, sourced and donated by the Australian Embassy to view this surreal and poignant piece. There are 10,000 Australian citizens directly descended from these girls and some of them will attend the official unveiling of this sculpture on the 20th July. These include Judith Constable who is a descendant of Jane Leary, one of the 110. Thereafter it will be on permanent display in the grounds of the community hospital.

The overgrown remnants  of the old workhouse in Schull will feature an intriguing multi-media event entitled Anáil na Beatha (breath of life) on 21 July. It has been created by Alanna O’Kelly, a multi-media artist with an international reputation. At 9.30 pm on that evening the audience will be guided in what O’Kelly describes as a “slightly processional way” through a landscape containing story tellers, contemporary videos featuring fleeing migrants and refugees, performance artists using black butter (a nod to the old butter road nearby), a local choir, and Cormac Begley breathing the concertina (no I don’t know either). The procession will culminate in a gathering around the Famine grave outside the walls of the workhouse. O’Kelly thinks of the workhouse as “a sacred site” and her aim “is bringing people there and giving them something to think about”.

Other events planned include schools programmes, lectures, walking tours, concerts and theatre. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre, under its energetic and innovative director Terri Kearney, provides an excellent permanent exhibition of the Famine story and will conduct guided tours of Famine sites during August. It will also unveil some new Famine information panels on the walls of the hulking old soup kitchen building near the Centre.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The HSE - A Minor Sympton of a Major Malaise

Due to my impressive longevity the HSE have very kindly bestowed upon me a new medical card. It got the name of my GP wrong however so I called the designated number to correct this – as advised in the accompanying letter. The number was 1890 252 919. When I called this number I was advised that it could be expensive to make a call on this number and that an alternative number 051 595129 could be used. Very thoughtful I said to myself but why not tell us this in the first place. Anyway I call the cheaper option and am advised again that I should call 051 595129 – the number I am currently calling. I hang in there and am told to press 1 for English and 2 for Irish. This public service tokenism is standard so not a whit disconcerted I press 1. There’s the sound of a disconnection and suddenly I’m back being advised to use 051 595129 instead of the more expensive 1890252919. I go through this sequence a few times and give up (try it yourself). When I worked in IT the customer was sacred and fucking them around like this would lead to drastic consequences for the idiot who perpetrated it. It’s a simple system that no one in the HSE has bothered their arse to test. Your job is safe no matter how inept you are and the organisation always trumps the poor punter. Just a small example of a far greater malaise.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Recent Reads – June 2018

Who Do I Think I Am – A Memoir by Homan Potterton


It’s hard to believe that Homan Potterton is a country boy from Trim. He comes across in this  gossipy memoir as not just a West Brit but as a Brit manqué.  For the most part it’s a tedious round of all the important people he knew and all the wonderful soirées he attended – dinner at Castletown with Desmond Guinness, lunch in the Kildare Street Club with Diane Tomlinson etc. - ad nauseum. Nice work if you can get it. He was clearly a precociously knowledgeable expert on art – especially 17th century Italian art but not perhaps robust enough as Director of the National Gallery to deal with an obdurate civil service and a philistine government. His tenure there was not perceived as successful although he should be given credit for his role in acquiring some of the Beit collection. While he’s frank with his opinions of the ignorant creatures he had to contend with (including Haughey quoted as saying “fuck his National Gallery, it’s not Irish anyhow and nor is he”) in his time as director,  he’s noticeably coy about his personal relationships and his homosexuality. We are given no insights into the life of a closeted gay man in the Dublin of those days and only the odd carefully phrased sentence even suggests that he may have had a gay relationship or two. A very selective memoir then that quickly runs out of steam. One is left at the end with a strong smell of prig.

The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien edited by Maebh Long


These are for dipping into obviously and very many of them are quite tedious as he deals with banks and publishers about mounting debts and missed deadlines. However, here and there we come upon gems of invective that make the whole book worth while. Early on he interposes himself hilariously between Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and their literary feud in the letters pages of the Irish Times. On page 107 he defends Patrick Kavanagh against charges that he, a mere writer, shouldn’t be reviewing the RHA Annual Show:  “anybody who has a bob or the social brilliantine to get a buckshee invitation is entitled to laugh, jibe, praise, deride or get downright sick on the floor”. The personal rarely gets through but most of the letters are from his later declining years and reading between the lines we detect the ravages of drink. He seems constantly to be sick or injured and unable to meet a deadline or a bank debt because of it. Some of the letters to banks show that the spirit is still intact. “Your Sub-Manager says that this £100 allowance is generous. That I regard as impudence. It should be explained to your Sub-Manager by some person in authority that people who deal with banks are CUSTOMERS, not necessarily spivs.”

Why Write – Collected Nonfiction by Philip Roth


This was Roth’s last publication issued in the estimable Library of America series. It’s full of gems like his open letter to Wikipedia regarding its error about the source of the main character in The Human Stain – the one where a professor gets into trouble because he used the term “spook” meaning ghost but the PC brigade chose to interpret it as a slur on his black students. It’s mostly interviews and conversations and there’s one entertaining one with Edna O’Brien which certainly raises her in my estimation. A classic to be consumed in small slowly masticated bites.

Evelyn Waugh – A Life Revisited by Philip Eade


If you think Homan Potterton is a prig, and I do, he’s a long way behind Evelyn Waugh in this regard. Waugh came from a modest middle-class background but made it his life’s work to cleave to the great and the good and was quick to adopt the associated life style. If you like literary gossip and a lively turn of phrase, this is for you. It touches, of course, on his literary career and on the relationship between the life and the work but it’s written for entertainment rather then education. Waugh started life as a homosexual it seems before becoming a galloping heterosexual. I suspect the English public school system and the Oxford of those times meant a highly-sexed young man took his pleasure where he could find it. It’s replete with scabrous anecdotes including the one where Alec Waugh’s unconsummated first marriage was ascribed to his wife having “a hymen like a concrete portcullis”. Follow that.

The Uncommon Reader – A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith


Unlike the Waugh biography referred top above, this focuses on the work rather than the life. The life indeed seemed fairly uneventful apart from an interlude where Garnett’s wife became besotted with a Russian writer who taught her Russian and then saved the day (and the marriage) by dying.  It is a good academic biography where we are introduced to one of the great mid-wives of 20th Century English literature. In his role as publishers’ reader, Garnett helped the young Joseph Conrad to discover his literary voice and was even allowed into the creative process of the great Henry James.  He also worked with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Green. If all that wasn’t enough, his wife Constance Garnett was the translator who introduced the English-speaking world to the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. A formidable duo done real service in this fascinating book.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Fox Hunt by Mohammed Al-Samawi

The following review appeared in the Irish Examiner on the 9 June 2018.

Yemen is a country mysterious to most Westerners. Its under-reported war where Saudi Arabia, Iran and their proxies inflict famine and violence on its populace North and South, shows no sign of reaching a resolution. This is the story of one Yemeni’s escape from the early stages of that deadly and pointless conflict, but more pertinently is shows him breaking free from the divisions and prejudices that cause such conflicts in the first place. Al-Samawi grew up in comfortable circumstances in Sana’a Northern Yemen – an area dominated by Shia moslems. His father was a senior figure in the medical establishment and despite being physically handicapped after a childhood stroke the author grew up to be a smart and curious young man. Cut off from sport and the usual pursuits of healthy teenagers, he finds solace on the Internet and in Facebook particularly. A sympathetic English teacher gives him a copy of the Old Testament and on reading it and researching the subject further, he discovers that his view of Jews and other non-Moslems is a partial and incomplete one. Through Facebook he establishes dialogues and makes friends across the religious divide, including many Jews.

In the course of his narrative we get behind the shutters of the restrictive world of the Moslem family. A girl in school daringly allows him to snatch a glance of her face when she briefly pulls aside her niqab. His parents find out and, after briefly considering marrying them off, terminate the relationship when they discover her family is poor. A cushy job and a suitable bride are arranged by his father and he settles into family life. You are struck by his absolute filial obedience to this authoritarian father. Even later, at the age of 26 and with a full-time job, he’s asking his permission to leave the country on a business trip.

Al-Samawi maintains his ecumenical interests and is soon attending conferences abroad for the promotion of racial and religious harmony. This leads to tensions at home and some creepy anonymous phone calls accusing him of being a Zionist spy. Ironically, as it transpires, he seeks safety by moving from his home in Sana’a to Aden to escape his accusers and to protect his family.

Shortly after he arrives in Aden, normal life in Yemen begins to fall apart. The Houthis, an extreme Shia group in the north depose the president and threaten to engulf Aden which is a Sunni stronghold. They are resisted by Al Qaeda on the ground and by the might of the Saudi Air Force. Al Samawi finds himself trapped in a small apartment with his food and water supplies dwindling. He dare not risk the Al Qaeda road-blocks because his name, his fair-skinned appearance and his accent all mark him as a Shia.

The core of the book involves his efforts to escape from this situation. He had built up a network of contacts through the Internet and manages to alert these friends to his plight. Indian ambassadors, American congressmen, high-ranking officials in international agencies, and sympathetic business men all cooperate in efforts to extricate him. Plans involve planes, helicopters, and boats and there are many false starts and dashed hopes before he manages to get out. The story is told in a naïve and breathless style and there are times when you wonder at the veracity of the whole thing. It seems astonishing that amidst the breakdown of civilized life in Aden he always managed to have an Internet connection. Also, there are two incidents involving encounters with Al-Quaeda that seem unconvincing. However, overall it’s an absorbing story and a window into a dangerous and exotic world. Al-Samawi now lives in the USA but his book concludes on a note of anxiety as he worries about the fate of his parents and family back in beleaguered Sana’a.

Scribe UK
PP. 310

John P. O’Sullivan
April 2018

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Justifying Justify

All romantics want Justify to win the Belmont Stakes this evening and so achieve the Triple Crown. You could quibble that he’s never run over 12 furlongs but neither have the rest of the field and most of them, including Justify, seem to be bred for a mile or 10 furlongs at best. One statistic about him gives me pause. His five races so far (from first to most recent) have been won by 9.5 lengths, 6.5 lengths,  3 lengths, 2.5 lengths and .5 length - in other words by diminishing distances. He’s clearly the best horse in the field but he’s had a hard couple of months and is untried over the distance. He’s got the worst of the draw in the number 1 stall - the same draw coincidentally that another hugely hyped horse Saxon Warrior had in the Epsom Derby. Also he’s 4-5 so I won’t be backing him. I’ll watch the drama unfold and look for each way value with Tenfold.