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…
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.
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.