Thing to remember about 1913 Lockout Tapestry is that it’s not a tapestry

Siptu and the National College of Art and Design commissioned the art work to tell the story of the lockout, the Irish labour movement’s mythic touchstone

Elizabeth Brennan, Cathy Henderson and Mary Hunter working on the 1913 Lockout Tapestry. The creative process is a collective experience, with each of the panels created by members of craft,  community and prison groups. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Elizabeth Brennan, Cathy Henderson and Mary Hunter working on the 1913 Lockout Tapestry. The creative process is a collective experience, with each of the panels created by members of craft, community and prison groups. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 06:00

The thing to remember about the 1913 Lockout Tapestry is that it’s not a tapestry.

“It’s not a tapestry,” says Helen Jakobsen, a member of the Irish Patchwork Society, when it looks like I might think it’s a tapestry.

“Now, it’s not really a tapestry,” says project manager Brendan Byrne, a little later, when it seems I still might think it’s a tapestry.

“It’s not actually a tapestry,” says artist Robert Ballagh the following week when we speak over the phone and I suggest I might think it’s a tapestry.

“We’re describing it as a tapestry because it’s a word the general public understand,” he says, before explaining that a true tapestry is completely woven, while this project involves a variety of techniques.

The inaccurate nomenclature doesn’t bother him.

“The most famous tapestry, the Bayeux Tapestry, isn’t strictly a tapestry either!”

It looks like a tapestry to me as I gaze at the satisfyingly blocky green policemen baton-charging the crowd on one striking, nearly-completed panel (one of 30). I’ve regularly stared at a black and white sketched version of this image through the blinds on the ground floor of Tara House on Dublin’s Tara Street as I passed on my way home from work. On Wednesday evenings the room is illuminated and full of life. With the lights on you can see the walls are covered with sketches by artists Ballagh and Cathy Henderson and reference photos of military uniforms from a hundred years ago. Women gather around tables sewing and chatting.

“What are they building in there?” I’d wondered, before eventually ringing the number pinned on the window.

It’s the 1913 Lockout Tapestry, Siptu’s Brendan Yeates tells me, commissioned by Siptu and the National College of Art and Design to tell the story of the Lockout, the Irish Labour movement’s mythic touchstone.

The creative process is an appropriately collective experience, with each panel physically created by members of organisations like the Irish Guild of Embroiderers, the Irish patchwork Society, the ICA, RADE and a number of community and prison groups.

The execution is overseen by NCAD handiwork expert Angela Keane, and they aim to have the whole project completed by August.

Cathy Henderson has a history of creating hierarchy-upturning art works. “I did a series on workers in St James’s hospital, subverting the tradition of having the hospital bigwigs portrayed on the wall,” she says. “I was painting portraits of porters and cleaners and catering staff and so on.”

And Ballagh has had a long association with Lockout-related pieces.

“One of the first paintings I ever did was a painting of Jim Larkin in that famous pose. I also did a painting of James Connolly which is in the collection of the National Gallery. It’s a multiple image thing and one of the images is of the baton charge on Sackville Street in 1913. Then in the 1970s I did a portrait of Jim Plunkett who wrote Strumpet City .” He chuckles. “I’ve been locked out for a long, long time.”

The “Bloody Sunday” panel, featuring the aforementioned baton-charge, is a product of painstaking work by members of the Patchwork Society.

“I’ve given them names,” says Jo Banks. “There’s Arthur,” she says, pointing at the first moustachioed member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. “That’s Billy. And so on.”

“I like this fellow here,” says Helen Jakobsen, of one slightly wonkily-browed policeman halfway along the line. “He looks like he fell out of the crib. He reminds me of Bart Simpson.”

All of those stitching are women, but it’s Brendan Byrne who lets me in (after a bit of tapping at the window) and takes me through the guide-drawings panel by panel. “I think the lads enjoy being here,” says Mary Hunter from the Irish Patchwork Society, nodding towards Byrne and Yeates. “And they’re good at making the tea.”

It’s not the first collective artwork Hunter has been involved in. She and the Patchwork Society helped sew some of the 25,566 “Roses from the Heart” bonnets commemorating the convict women transported to Australia.

Other collective projects are cropping up all over the place, including several “not strictly a tapestry” tapestries. Recently they were visited by women from Belfast who were planning a tapestry commemorating Belfast port.

“When I arrived I saw a woman working that I’d never seen before,” says Ballagh. “It was one of the Belfast women busy sewing away.

“And the Dublin crowd said they planned to go to Belfast to give them a hand. And I thought this was marvellous. We had hoped that that sort of thing would happen and it’s happening organically.”

And the work is on target, with everyone eager to do something like it again. “It’s kind of magical,” says Henderson of seeing her images emerging stitch by stitch.

“Ah, they’ve done great work,” says Byrne proudly. Then he goes into the next room, possibly to make the tea, and I take another look at the baton-charging policemen.

It looks like a tapestry to me.