'1916 memories should be alive every year, not every 100 years'
Artist Norman Teeling tells our reporter those who died in 1916 are heroes, and plans to commemorate them one portrait at a time
Published 05/11/2015 | 02:30
It's 20 years since he was commissioned by An Post to mark the 80th anniversary of the Easter Rising with a series of paintings for the GPO, but as the centenary approaches, his works have long since disappeared from public view. Now, despite calls for his paintings to be reinstated inside the landmark building, artist Norman Teeling has no intention of entering into the debate. And as far as he is concerned he doesn't need to, because he plans to revisit the Rising with a completely new series of commemorative paintings.
His previous collection was a high point of the 80th anniversary, comprising a series of 10 paintings depicting Teeling's interpretation of iconic images such as the wounded James Connolly being comforted by his comrades, a volunteer raising the flag of the Irish Republic on the rooftop, and Padraig Pearse reading the Proclamation on the steps of the GPO.
Unveiled as part of the 1996 celebrations, the original collection remained on public view in the main hall of the GPO until the building was refurbished in 2005. They were then put into storage where they remain to this day. Now An Post communications director Barney Whelan says the State company is actively seeking a new home for the collection ahead of next year's centenary commemorations.
"The public hall is not a suitable space to house an art collection," he says. "These are large paintings and some jutted out from pillars too narrow to accommodate them. "We're storing them very carefully and want to find them a good home.
"We'd be delighted to hear from somebody who's in a position to display them properly and we'll work with them to ensure the paintings can be seen by the Irish public in a purpose-built setting where they can be viewed at their best."
The artist himself remembers the frantic deadline of the commission in early 1996, which came about almost by chance.
"There wasn't a lot of visual references, because nobody took photos much back then, so I did some research and painted half-a-dozen pictures of how I imagined the thick of the action in the GPO, then left them in the garage where a friend, Brian Sheridan, saw them and asked, 'What are you doing with that lot?' I said I'd been meaning to call the GPO to see if An Post wanted them.
"'No need, I'll do that for you,' said Brian. He had the cheek to ask and next thing they said yes, the 80th anniversary's coming up - we'll take four and can you do six more in six weeks, in time for the commemorations? I did a painting a week to meet the deadline."
A few months after the launch, Norman came across a group of Americans on a walking tour of Dublin heading for the GPO.
"The tour guide said to them, 'Right, let's do the Stations!' so I tagged along and stood at the back while he led them to the first of my paintings. He described the scene, then told his customers to study it on their own for a minute, at which point he came over to me and asked me to leave, in no uncertain terms! 'Listen here, this is a paying tour - clear off!' he said.
"I explained I was the painter and, without skipping a beat, he took me by the elbow and announced, 'Get your cameras ready - we have the artist right here!'"
Norman laughs at the memory as he prepares for his own event to mark the 2016 commemorations.
"It hit me last year that these paintings might not be seen again, so I decided to have my own exhibition at the Oriel Gallery in Dublin. I've already completed a dozen paintings of scenes at the GPO, the Four Courts and other parts of the city, and portraits of the leaders.
"This collection tells a story that's more informed than the first, because I've had more time to immerse myself in the history and characters of the period. And I'm a better painter than I was 20 years ago.
"I've been influenced by the beauty and poignancy of the arts of that era too. The Wayfarer by Padraig Pearse is a gorgeous poem, and to think he wrote it the night before he was executed is astonishing."
His research into 1916 and the years that followed has proved an education for Norman who, like many of his generation, learned little about this important part of our history at school.
"My mother Maura, who's 97, tells of her Aunt Brigid regularly wheeling a pram full of guns through town to bring them from one place to another in the lead up to the Rising. I learned more from her than anything taught at school.
"History was beaten into us and it was all figures and dates. I didn't put it together until I started doing my own research and what an amazing discovery it's been! The Easter Rising is the most important event to have happened in this country, yet there's no pride shown in it whatsoever.
"Other countries celebrate their historic events on an annual basis. Look at how the Fourth of July is marked in America, Poppy Day in Britain, Bastille Day in France. It seems to me that other nations honour their history and we don't. It's crazy."
Some might put that down to the struggles we have with parades, particularly those with a record of stirring up sectarian divides, but Norman says it's time to put past hostilities behind us and reclaim our national heritage.
"For a brief period in the 1950s, we did mark the Rising," he points out. "An Tóstal was a massive celebration that took place every Easter Sunday.
"It was better than Paddy's Day, with the biggest floats and the army marching in the biggest parade. And then suddenly, it was dropped from the calendar. I say let's bring back our annual Easter Rising holiday."
Launched in 1953, An Tóstal (The Pageant) was a series of festivals held in towns and villages all over the country to attract tourists during the Easter off-season. Having failed to bring in the anticipated business, however, it died out in 1958, except for Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim, where it continues today.
Norman would like to see a revival of the festival not only to celebrate Irish life and culture, but also to pay tribute to the heroes of 1916. It should be an event for all the people, he adds, not one to be appropriated by political interest groups. Despite being brought up in a staunchly republican household - or perhaps because of it - he says he has no affiliations to any political party.
"In our house, Dev was akin to Jesus Christ! My father was close friends with Charlie Haughey and as a boy, I was brought out canvassing at every election.
"However, when that kind of thing is stuffed down your throat, you can rebel against it and I grew up preferring to spend my time on art, music and poetry than politics.
"But Haughey was a man of vision who appreciated art and culture. He brought in the tax exemption for artists, because he used to say nothing survives but art. He encouraged art in all its forms - painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, music, dancing, acting, the lot. Now those tax exemptions are all but eroded and artists can barely eke out a living.
"I'm okay, I'm 71 and I have a pension, but I know other younger men and women who are literally hungry artists, living on beans. Art is dying in this country. It's a terrible indictment considering the cultural, literary and artistic revival that flourished a hundred years ago.
"Our forebears of 1916 got it. They were artists, idealists and dreamers. Who else would have had the vision to orchestrate the Rising? A realist would have said, 'Are you off your rocker?' Yet here were a few brave men and women taking on the might of the British empire, one of the most powerful forces on the planet. It was insane!
"I believe they knew in their hearts it wouldn't work, yet still they were prepared to lay down their lives so the generations that followed might be free.
"The Rising itself was a flop, but it was the spark that lit the bonfire of the ensuing War of Independence and the Civil War. And the 1916 rebels didn't fail because they died; on the contrary, their executions opened the eyes of the Irish people and after that we never gave in.
"These revolutionaries, and Wolfe Tone before them, were inspiring beyond measure. Our freedom wasn't handed to us, we had to fight for it, and they paid the ultimate sacrifice. These men are our heroes.
"There should be a monument to them on O'Connell Street and a national holiday in their honour. We should keep the memories of these people alive every year, not every hundred years."