An art exhibition that would make your blood boil

Alanna O'Kelly: Still from the video: “No colouring can deepen the darkness of truth” 1992
Alanna O’Kelly: still from video: “No colouring can deepen the darkness of truth”

I was angry – that was my first emotion. I was at the art exhibition in Dublin Castle entitled: Coming home, art and the Great Hunger and the first room contained all the old Victorian paintings of thatched cottages, boorish Irish peasants and innocuous pastoral scenes.

In the background I could hear the documentary about the Irish Famine – about the million who had died from starvation and disease, and the two million more who had been forced to emigrate. 1847 was the worst year. “Black 47”

And there was plenty of food in the country at the time – but it was being exported. Laissez Faire, that’s what they called it – the government policy of not interfering with the free market…

The ragpickers, a painting by Henry Allan RHA 1900
The Rag Pickers, an oil painting by Henry Allan RHA, 1900

But there was also a painting by Henry Allan (1865-1912) in the exhibition. He painted the rag pickers down at the Shelly Banks (seen above). Rag pickers eked out a living by scavenging for rags and scraps (as well as dead cats and dogs because, according to the exhibition label, these could be skinned to make clothes).

Does any of this sound familiar? – the haves and the have-nots in the world today?

There was a second room with more contemporary works. This exhibition is from the collection of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in America. After June, it will travel to Skibbereen and then on to Derry.

Actually what moved me most was the video by Alanna O’Kelly entitled:  “No colouring can deepen the darkness of truth”. I had seen it over twenty years ago but it is still as powerful today.

Alanna O'Kelly: still from video: "No colouring can deepen the darkness of truth"
Alanna O’Kelly: still from video: “No colouring can deepen the darkness of truth”

Using a collage of images of seashore and mountain, the recitation of Irish place names, the haunting sound of keening and the intermittent singing in the Irish language, it makes manifest the terrible trauma and loss suffered by the Irish nation, no more than five generations ago.

O’Kelly’s response to the Famine came from an appreciation that loss and emigration are still live issues, connecting Irish history to ongoing conflict and displacement around the world.

I’m afraid that my reproductions don’t do justice to the original film and of course, the soundtrack is crucial to the full appreciation of the art. If you’re ever in County Leitrim, there is a permanent installation of this artwork in the Workhouse, Carrick-on-Shannon, one of the sites referenced in the work.

Alanna O’Kelly




  1. I came away from it viscerally angry, Eoin ; Moya Cannon, poet, does a good job with the voiceover in the AV and there are artists there who are a revelation to me; some of the sculpture is especially strong; the folios published alongside are very well produced – I bought several and when the catalogue is available again (out of print!) I hope to get it. When it goes to Skibbereen it will be alongside the Famine Museum there, adducing the specific references and historical facts; appalling. I will never forget my own grandmother’s eyes as she told us of looking into the eyes of a woman she knew who had survived the Famine and seen its horrors; so it’s only two eye contacts away for me ……………..; This exhibition is a must see, with contemporary relevance re the last decade : homelessness, deprivation ; cuts to essential services: emigration and laissez faire in Ireland. while others were paid 200,00 pa from the public purse, to continue their activities. That’s why I support DIEM 25 in Ireland, and across Europe .


  2. No colouring can deepen the darkness of truth. An interesting line. It reminds me of the proverb, Tógfaidh dath dubh ach ní thógfaidh dubh dath. (A light colour can be dyed black but a black cloth can’t be dyed a lighter colour.) It’s usually used in the metaphorical sense and refers to how easy it is to blacken someone’s character but not so easy to restore their reputation.


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