Friday 20 September 2019

How the arts helped us connect with the Rising 100 years on

From theatre and dance to a 2016 feminist uprising, centenary year offered plenty for culture vultures, writes Celine Naughton

A Nation's Voice, an open-air, free performance at the National Museum, Collins Barracks, in Dublin as part of the 1916 commemorations . Maxwells
A Nation's Voice, an open-air, free performance at the National Museum, Collins Barracks, in Dublin as part of the 1916 commemorations . Maxwells
Lian Bell at a Dublin rally for the #WakingTheFeminists' year-long campaign for gender equality in Irish theatre. Kate Horgan
Sibéal Ní Chasaide sings 'Mise Eire', during rehersals for RTÉ's Centerary Concert at Dublin's Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Frank McGrath

It was a year when we let our imagination run away with us. Throughout the centenary, Irish people connected with 1916 through an extraordinary surge of art and culture that lifted hearts at home and abroad. After a year in which we sang, danced, told stories, played music, recited poetry, performed plays and painted our way back to 1916, we discovered a whole new perspective on the events of that fateful year.

For Arts Council Director Orlaith McBride, one of the highlights of the year was 'A Nation's Voice', which took place in Collins Barracks on Easter Sunday.

"We brought 2,500 singers together with the National Concert Orchestra and it was a spine-chilling, hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck performance," she says.

"Another memorable project was 'These Rooms' a co-production by Anu and CoisCéim that looked at 1916 through dance and theatre. It took place in a building on Upper Dorset Street, the birthplace of Sean O'Casey. Using witness statements of the women whose husbands had been killed in the North King Street massacre, different scenes were played out in rooms throughout the house. It was very moving."

Visual artist Rita Duffy created an interpretation of Tom Clarke's shop in 1916. Her souvenir shop sold quirky memorabilia such as Black and Tan shoe polish, Free State jam, and candles with images of the Rising leaders.

Fearghus O'Conchúir ran a contemporary dance project about Roger Casement that culminated in a one-day spectacle on Banna Strand, near where the Kerry rebel was captured in 1916.

A scene from a new production of Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme, part of the Abbey's centenary programme. Johan Persson
A scene from a new production of Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme, part of the Abbey's centenary programme. Johan Persson

"Irish people are renowned as good storytellers, but we're not so articulate with our bodies," says Fearghus. "A number of things drew me to the complicated figure of Roger Casement. Born a Protestant and died a Catholic, he was a British knight, Irish revolutionary, a homosexual, part of the establishment and simultaneously a criminal.

"He and other revolutionaries of 1916 put their bodies on the line for their country. That's part of our heritage. Dance helps us to understand the history in our bodies.

"The Casement Project will be shown on RTÉ in January, and I want to keep the momentum going after that, and reach a global audience."

Artist Liam O'Neill tapped into that global audience when his exhibition, 'Visionaries of Ireland', was shown in the Irish Consulate in New York last May after its launch at Dublin's Oriel Gallery. Following the success of the New York event, Oriel director Mandy Williams is now planning the gallery's biggest venture to date - mounting an exhibition in Washington showing works by all 10 of the company's artists in late 2017.

"This year we exported 50pc of our artists' works to the US," she says. "That was largely due to the record number of tourists to Ireland. They loved being here, they engaged with the commemorations and wanted to bring something of our history home."

But what is it about art that we love so much? Why do paintings and music and poetry bring history to life for so many of us?

"Art allows you to look at things at a distance, and with a critical eye," says Dr Angela Griffith of the History of Art department in Trinity College Dublin. "It allows us to visualise what happened in the past, and respond in an emotional sense. It's an intimate experience.

"There were few images made in 1916, so we now see works that relate to the period, but are not of it. It's an interesting dynamic, because these are contemporary responses to events of a hundred years ago."

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Film, TV, theatre, music, poetry and literature also took centre stage this year. Bríodhna NicDiarmada's seminal TV series, '1916', narrated by Liam Neeson, was watched by millions of viewers here and in the US. There seemed to be an insatiable appetite for books shedding a new light on the Easter Rising story, and who could forget the hauntingly beautiful 'Mise Éire' performance by Sibéal Ní Chasaide from RTÉ's Centenary Concert?

The Abbey Theatre toured new productions of Frank McGuiness's 'Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme' and Sean O'Casey's 'The Plough and the Star', while its companion show for younger audiences, 'Me, Mollser' toured schools across Ireland and libraries in Boston and Philadelphia.

However, it wasn't all plain sailing. When the Abbey launched its centenary programme, 'Waking the Nation', last year, set designer Lian Bell took to social media to protest that it included only one play out of 10 written by a woman. The storm clouds were already gathering as mná na hÉireann were already in full tweet and in the following weeks, the protest went viral.

And then the magic happened.

In a display of feminine force rarely seen since the days of Cumann na mBan, Irish women churned together and turned sour cream into butter. The result was Waking the Feminists, a campaign to increase the representation of women in the theatre.

"I got a sense of what it must have been like to be part of a revolution," says Lian. "Within five months, the Abbey announced its guiding principles around gender equality. And this year we met with 15 of the biggest theatre companies in Ireland, all of whom have committed to change.

"Our success has had a knock-on effect in other walks of life. Women in business, medicine, and music are now stepping up and demanding a level playing field. That's not a bad legacy to pass on to future generations."

Irish Independent

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