Art is the way to the heart when commemorating a centenary
Actor Lloyd Cooney performing ‘Living the Lockout’ at 14 Henrietta Street. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall
We are now well into the decade of commemorations, an idea that so far seems to belong largely to historians and politicians. And, up to a point, rightly so. We need historians to keep looking at the events of 1912 to1923 that shaped modern Ireland, to keep applying evidence-based rigour to received narratives and mythologies. We also need politicians to interpret those revisions of the past for the present and the future. But the truth is that the work of historians and politicians will mean very little without the work of artists. What is remembered, what goes into most people’s hearts and heads, will be images shaped by writers and performers. “It is not,” says Hugh in Brian Friel’s Translations, “the lived past, the ‘facts’ of history that shape us but images of the past embodied in language.”
We know this very well in Ireland, where artists have been very successful at embodying in language images of the decade we are now commemorating, even when those images contradict or complicate the official narratives. The most potent presentation of the 1916 Rising is still Sean O’Casey’s highly subversive The Plough and the Stars. The 1913 Lockout, insofar as it occupies a place in public consciousness, is filtered primarily through James Plunkett’s magnificent Strumpet City. Irish participation in the first World War, long marginalised, was crucially restored to popular memory by artistic reimaginings such as Frank McGuinness’s Behold the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way.
Conversely, the ultimate testament to the importance of artistic interventions in shaping collective memory may be the things that are still forgotten. The struggle for women’s rights, and in particular for universal suffrage, is unquestionably one of the most momentous episodes of the entire decade. But, in spite of some valiant efforts, it has not been successfully embodied in artistic language. It doesn’t have its Plough and the Stars or Strumpet City, and therefore it has a much weaker hold on public memory.
Living the Lockout
All of this is by way of suggesting that there needs to be a serious commitment to artistic engagement with the process of commemoration – a commitment that is not especially evident so far. A small but brilliant example of what can be done with very modest resources is Living the Lockout, which is occupying the extraordinarily resonant space of 14 Henrietta Street in Dublin until the end of August. Staged by Louise Lowe’s splendid Anu Productions team, it is supported by the Irish Heritage Trust, Dublin City Council and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, itself an innovative collaboration.
Site-specific work has been the modus operandi of Lowe, designer Owen Boss and the core team of actors who have worked on the breathtaking Monto cycle that has unfolded around Foley Street and in the Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street. The house at 14 Henrietta Street is certainly a site for wide-open eyes: the stripped-down shell of a splendid Georgian townhouse, built about 1748. It still has small, and therefore haunting, relics of its old decency: neoclassical plaster friezes with garlands and lyres, fat putti on the cornices, torn fragments of lush 19th-century wallpaper. But it also has the rough partitions that divided it up into tenements of the kind that made Dublin internationally notorious for overcrowding and disease; in 1913 an astonishing 100 people were living in the house.