The Souvenir Shop

Free State Jam

This is a first – a ‘live’ blog post! I’m writing it inside an art installation running as part of the excellent Skibbereen Arts Festival. The installation is The Souvenir Shop, and it’s a huge hit with visitors. The project is conceived by Belfast artist Rita Duffy and curated by Helen Carey, and is a very unusual perspective on the 1916 Rising commemorations.

o'neill'sshop

The Souvenir Shop was first shown in Dublin earlier this year – here is a review from the Irish Times – and it’s now in the perfect setting here in West Cork: O’Neill’s old sweetshop on Townshend Street in Skibbereen. The premises has been empty for years and stepping inside it today is stepping into the past: a shop unchanged over generations.

customers

Rita in Shop

The atmospheric and nostalgic interior of O’Neill’s shop brought back to life by Rita Duffy (above): it displays and sells ‘souvenirs’ of the 1916 Rising and the events around it. It’s a piece of art which includes and embraces its customers and the ‘invigilators’ who, today, are Roaringwater Journal creators Finola and Robert

Finola and I are on our second stint behind the counter: we are the shopkeepers! We try to keep order as customers crowd in to look at the wares in display, all of which are designed by Rita. We met her in the shop on the first day of the exhibition and she explained that, during the Rising on Easter Monday 1916, many shops in Dublin were looted: the first was Noblett’s Sweet Shop on Sackville Street, and another was Tom Clarke’s tobacconist shop on Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street). She has re-made or re-imagined these shops for the installation, and filled the empty shelves of O’Neill’s with an incredible array of objects – most of which are for sale.

Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising was accompanied by widespread looting of shops: Noblett’s Confectionery (top left – Dublin City Photographic Collection) and Clarke’s Tobacconist (bottom – National Library of Ireland) were among the first casualties. Tom Clarke himself (above right) was the first to sign the Proclamation of Independence, and was a driving force behind the rebellion

Rita Duffy’s subversive commentary on the Rising and the events that led from that time towards the present uneasy ‘peace process’  includes re-interpretations of everyday items that we would expect to see on the shelves of our local shops – soap, boot polish, tinned foods, tea, sweets, packets of seeds… It all looks very normal when you walk in – with a period flavour. We are finding that many of the customers today have fond memories of O’Neill’s sweet shop recalled from their childhoods and are delighted to come in and see it back in business: we can’t resist nostalgia. The initial impression is exactly that – a rosy-hued look back on our remembered past. Then we all start looking more closely at what is on the shelves and we are jolted out of our reveries…

Just a few of the items on sale today in The Souvenir Shop. Look carefully – ‘No Surrender stain remover’ shows James Connolly’s blood stained shirt worn during the Easter Rising; ‘His Majesties Ltd comforting diasporic foot soak for the wanderer who seeks a better footing’; ‘On The Run embrocation for the sore and twisted limbs of the dissident thinker (apply before sleep in a safe house)’; ‘Put my grandfather back together’ bandages; ‘Towards a New Republic Clear the Air vapour candle’…

It makes you laugh, initially – and then you have to think what you are laughing about. Balaclavas, in powder blue and pink with orange trim, for example. Black and Tan boot polish…? There’s a whole lot more to The Souvenir Shop. Rita Duffy has engaged the services of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in Cavan (her studio is in Ballyconnell) to make Free State Jam and to knit – the balaclavas for example – but also some wonderfully bizarre religious iconography: did you ever see a knitted Pietá before?

Unexpected knitting courtesy of the Cavan Irish Countrywomen’s Association

Rita has also produced tea towels, t-shirts, and some embroidered place-mats carrying rather uncomfortable messages to entertain your dinner guests with. There are also ceramics: teapots, dishes and glassware. It’s such an eclectic range of goods on offer in this shop. That’s why the crowds come in and spend what seems like hours browsing the shelves that once held jars of sweets and packets of tea. There are sweets and tea here today – children are delighted to be given some free samples – but they probably don’t understand the hidden messages on the colourful packaging.

Most stark, perhaps, are the seeds: Seeds of the Revolution: two packets for 5 Euros. The messages here are fairly easy to read, although harder to digest. They really are seeds in those packets, but you’ll have to plant them to find out what comes up, perhaps something else that has a subversive implication: I’ll tell you what mine are next spring!

Seed rack

There’s so much in The Souvenir Shop that I haven’t included in this little review – and I’m far too busy trying to fend off the demands of the customers while I’m writing this. If only they would get into an orderly queue – it’s like some sort of insurrection in here… But we’ll cope – and encourage you to come and see this piece of artwork while it’s still on (it finishes on Monday 1st August at 5pm). Step inside and you become part of the exhibit – just like we are right now. You’ll enjoy it, perhaps more than you should. It will certainly leave you thinking.

Cross Roads Dancing

The Souvenir Shop (…nothing is as it seems…) is one of the major projects commissioned by the Arts Council of Ireland’s Art 1916-2016, marking the centenary of the 1916 Rebellion – with the support of Cavan Arts Office and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. It runs through the Skibbereen Arts Festival between July 22nd and August 1st in O’Neill’s old sweetshop on Townshend Street

Peas + Beans

O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist?

Fiery Rossa

The world was shocked this week by appalling acts of terror. Terrorism is rightly and universally condemned in modern Ireland – and yet this year we celebrated the centenary of the death of a man whom many, including his fellow patriots, denounced as a terrorist in his lifetime while others hailed as a hero.

Our American and Canadian readers might be surprised at how relevant his story is to their own countries.

Rossa Prisoner

I write of course of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of Skibbereen, the ‘Unrepentant Fenian’, whose state burial in 1915 was the occasion of a fiery speech by Patrick Pearse that is commonly seen as a catalyst to the 1916 Rising. In March Back in Time I introduced him and wrote about the awful background that turned him into a revolutionary – the death of his father from famine fever and his family’s eviction and departure from Ireland. To the end he refused to call the cataclysmic events of 1845 to 1850 a famine: there was no shortage of food, he pointed out, just a shortage of humanity. It fired in him a lifelong hatred of British rule which hardened through terrible treatment in prison and which he brought with him to exile in America, where he and his fellow Fenians were accorded a hero’s welcome.

The Cuba Five were so named for the ship that brought them to America. Courtsey Library of Congress

The Cuba Five were so named for the ship that brought them to America. Courtsey Library of Congress

The Fenian brotherhood Rossa joined in America in 1870 had organised several raids on Canadian communities during the 1860s and early 70s. All were unsuccessful, but resulted in loss of life and a worsening of relationships between Canada and America, seen as harbouring and tolerating Fenian activity. The raids involved hundreds of Fenians, many of them battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War. (For more on the Irish in the American Civil War – the numbers and the stories will amaze you – see Damian Shiels’ meticulously researched blog and website.)

According to this article on the Fenian Raids:

Ironically, though they did nothing to advance the cause of Irish independence, the 1866 Fenian raids and the inept efforts of the Canadian militia to repulse them helped to galvanize support for the Confederation of Canada in 1867. Some historians have argued that the affair tipped the final votes of reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the “battle that made Canada.”

Fenian Raid on Canada

The Battle of Ridgeway, courtesy Library of Congess

Embracing this militaristic approach, Rossa became as notorious an extremist in America as in Ireland. He founded a newspaper, The United Irishman, to propagate his views and raise funds for his infamous skirmishing fund. This fund, in fact, was to pay for a bombing campaign carried out in Britain from 1881 to 1885, causing injuries and deaths (to civilians, including children) – and real terror.

One of the exhibits in Skibbereen this summer consisted of newpaper clippings from American newspapers about Rossa, amply testifying to his notoriety. The top right clipping consists of snippets about Well Known People – Rossa is listed alongside William Morris, Geronimo and the Csar Of Russia

In many ways O’Donovan Rossa encapsulates a central dissonance at the heart of Irish History: he was a passionate patriot who believed in armed struggle, while many of his contemporaries espoused a pacifist (see Michael Davitt as a prime example – he referred to Rossa as O’Donovan Assa) or parliamentary approach and saw Rossa’s campaign of violence as undermining their objectives. Now, in 21st Century Ireland, we are faced with the dilemma of how to deal with historical figures who are both important markers in the struggle for independence and echoes of a violent past many no longer wish to glorify.

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins opened O'Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins opened O’Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen

In Skibbereen this summer Rossa was celebrated in several ways. We attended not just the March, but a play, two exhibitions, a lecture, and the grand opening of a refurbished park in Rossa’s honour by Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland. In Dublin his 1915 state funeral and graveside oration were given a full scale re-enactment, attended by the President, the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and many dignitaries.

We toured Glasnevin Cemetary on Dublin this summer. The tour included a re-enactment of Patric Pearse's oration at the grave of O'Donovan Rossa

We toured Glasnevin Cemetary on Dublin this summer. The tour included a recital of Patrick Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa

To give you a flavour for how Rossa is revered as a hero watch this YouTube clip – the ultra-nationalist ballad features Pathé News footage of the actual funeral.

But not everyone felt that it was appropriate for the Irish government to underwrite such commemorations. This was expressed well by the historian, Carla King writing to the Irish Times. She summed up thus:

…while O’Donovan Rossa is a figure for whom we can feel some pity, his philosophy, with its commitment to mindless and counter-productive violence, launched a tradition of which we should be ashamed.

Another historian, Marie Coleman wrote:

It was unclear whether the focus of the event was Rossa himself or the significance of the funeral as signifying the rejuvenation of republicanism as a precursor to the Easter Rising. If the former, the State’s endorsement of an archaic form of irredentist Irish nationalism will sit uncomfortably with many in 21st-century Ireland and with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland.

Another exhibition opening - this one at the Skibbereen Library

Another exhibition opening – this one at the Skibbereen Library

Like many Irish people growing up in the 50s and 60s I was brought up on stories of the epic Fight for Irish Freedom, although in my family’s case it was also complicated by ancestry on both sides of the divide. In that narrative, Rossa was one in a long line of heroic freedom fighters. To dig a little deeper still into the story of O’Donovan Rossa, I went looking for signs of the man himself around Skibbereen and found them in some surprising places.  My next post will relate to Rossa’s time in Skibbereen and the legacy he left in this West Cork town.

Impressions

Water worlds - in a Dublin park, above and in the wilds of West Cork, below

Water worlds – in a Dublin park, above and in the wilds of West Cork, below

water 2

It’s over two years since I had a round up of the odd, quirky – or perhaps just very Irish – things that catch my eye during our travels. I called that post Juxtapositions. Here’s another collection of images that have fascinated me enough to record them with the camera. As in Juxtapositions, I have tried to show these pictures in context where it counts – or just let them speak for themselves. Sometimes I’ve added a little text, perhaps to amplify why I have been attracted by certain Impressions

lion

lions

Gentrified Lions at Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, and a domesticated version, above

Some high things…

high

…and some little things…

little mary

pegs

fence

Startling Impressions…

Above left – an ancient stone cross in an urban setting, and – above right – the statue of Cúchulainn – a memorial to the 1916 uprising: an impossible-to-photograph icon in a poignant setting, the General Post Office building, Dublin. On the 24 of April (Easter Monday) 1916, about 2,000 Irish Volunteers and 200 from the Irish Citizen Army occupied the General Post Office as well as other important buildings in the city. They proclaimed the Irish Republic, read the Proclamation and raised the Irish flag for the first time. The British army shelled the GPO and other buildings. After a week’s fighting, the leaders of the rising surrendered: most suffered execution by firing squad. Many civilians died in the cross-fire. The guns and fires had destroyed much of the city and the GPO was in ruins. All this happened in Twentieth Century Great Britain…

Rust and relics…

bike

corrugated

wavy line

Ancient and modern…

The Children of Lir - sculpture by Oisín Kelly in the Garden of Remembrance, Dubiln

The Children of Lir – sculpture by Oisín Kelly in the Garden of Remembrance, Dubiln

Emerald Isle greens…

Art and ‘Nature Art’…

Seekers…

dali lama

sitting

Lifeline…

ring

The last word…

little saint