Visiting Rita Duffy in her studio, the Old Courthouse in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, I am greeted by the artist, in her paint-spattered apron, with a dimpled chuckle.
The courthouse still has its internal furnishings, from the judge's bench to the door signs, but now every seat, shelf, ledge and wall is hung or stacked with Duffy's art works or the preparations for her upcoming show, The Souvenir Shop, which opens on April 24th, the actual anniversary of the start of the Rising.
The studio spills over with all the things you would expect – tubes and pots of paint, brushes, palettes, blank and half-completed canvases – and many you don’t, including an old Sinn Féin banner, a pink knitted balaclava, jars of marmalade and miniature sewing kits, brown paper packages of household candles that look like sticks of dynamite, bars of soap and tins of shoe polish, and a first World War triangular bandage printed with folding instructions for various wounds. Duffy is working “hard and in splendid isolation” to make sure everything is ready on time.
For Souvenir, one of nine Arts Council-funded Rising projects, Duffy has rented 13 North Great George's Street, a decaying Georgian mansion that will be "just perfect". In the front room she is installing the fittings of draper Mary Ann Darcy's old shop in Bawnboy, Co Cavan, bought from her son, Aidan. The result will be a contemporary artwork exploring how images, objects and themes of the Rising have been transformed into "souvenirs".
Referencing Thomas Clarke’s two newsagent-tobacconist shops, Duffy wants to examine and subvert the Irish preoccupation with identity.
The exhibition weaves together wittily, unsentimentally and mischievously the legacy of the Rising with Celtic mythologies, the Troubles, and the role of women historically and in today’s Ireland. Clarke’s importance to the Rebellion has, she says, been airbrushed from history, although he was the first signatory of the Proclamation and the one who insisted on going ahead despite the evident shambles.
Duffy likes to use irony and humour, which, she says, have been undervalued in the arts. The shop will be stocked with dozens of products – some for sale – including old white ceramics and artefacts collected from charity shops. The back room will illustrate the exhibition’s background and show the original paintings and drawings.
A set of Mexican grave candles will venerate Patrick Pearse (shown as the Virgin of Guadeloupe), Cuchulainn – the "ultimate Irish macho hero" – and Bobby Sands, among others. There will be "smuggled cigarettes" and "laundered diesel". Visitors will be able to buy a vintage-style paper cutout "make your own Markievicz" doll. There will be hand-decorated Easter eggs: the Celtic symbol of rebirth, goodness and fertility.
The Souvenir Shop will have a strong Northern flavour; Duffy is, she says, first and foremost an Ulster woman. She grew up during the Troubles in the aspiring Protestant neighbourhood of Stranmillis in Belfast, where she never quite fitted in.
Her father was a Catholic from the Falls Road, and his father was a forced volunteer from the Combe Barbour Falls Foundry who died at the Somme. Her mother was from rural Offaly. Duffy was sent to St Dominic's on the Falls Road, a place she also did not belong.
Now she lives in Fermanagh with her family. Her studio is just south of the Border. She has crept to the creative margins, to the edge of Ulster, where she “casts a gimlet eye on the South”, deliberately far from the artistic establishment in Belfast, another place she says she has never quite fitted.
Duffy describes herself as a feminist, a pacifist, a nationalist and a “republican in the truest sense of the word”. Her work shows a deep interest in Irish history and culture and is exhaustively researched, intricately detailed and clever. She reads widely on human rights and justice, psychology, history and literature, and is influenced by surrealism and magic realism.
Her art features in all the major collections in Ireland: her blood-red sofa, covered with needle-sharp pins, is in the Hugh Lane Gallery, and one of her Watchtower paintings, of the British army observation sangars from the Troubles, is in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Three of her drawings from the 1980s – one of a "big soldier", one of a knee-capping she witnessed on the Falls Road, and another of women banging bin lids – have recently been bought by the Imperial War Museum in London.
The Souvenir Shop is a direct descendant of Thaw, a Falls Road pop-up shop from the 2014 West Belfast Festival that stocked a range of household products satirising the cliches and memes of sectarianism and the Troubles, and The Shirt Factory, which explored the legacy of shirt-making and female labour in Derry.
Duffy acknowledges Catriona O'Reilly and Rhonda Tidy of Cavan Arts, who have been "incredibly helpful" and enabled her to use the courthouse as a studio.
Last year she went to the National Ploughing Championships and met the president of the Cavan branch of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, Anna Rose McCormack. She presented her idea for The Souvenir Shop to the ICA's national agm as a way for women to take part in the Rising commemorations and to celebrate their role of "nourishing the nation" with their skills of knitting, sewing and jam-making.
ICA members nationwide are making the marmalade and hemming a range of tea towels, including a "unite Ireland" sewing kit with a cutout of the North separated from the South, and another with Duffy's painting Crossroads Dancing, which shows her mother dancing with Pearse. Another reproduces a priest's letter to her grandmother after her grandfather was killed at the Somme.
ICA members are also knitting a range of dolls designed by Duffy: an Irish first World War nurse, a Black and Tan soldier and an Orangeman, an injured soldier with his guts in his pocket, and Rosa Luxemburg, the German communist revolutionary who was murdered in 1919.
Duffy is distressed at the vanishing of the village shop from rural Ireland. Clarke’s shops had back rooms used for intrigue and conspiracy; now the Irish village shop, a place of “gossip, provisions and exchange”, is “dying on its feet”.
Duffy is insistent that the exhibition should not be too Dublin-centric. Shops will also be recreated in Clara, Co Offaly – the village her mother is from – and Achill island, where the local shop has just closed.
Smaller collections are being boxed into reclaimed military medical field chests and sent to arts venues around the country, including the Crawford Gallery in Cork and the Dock Gallery in Carrick-on-Shannon as mini-exhibitions.
Duffy also hopes The Souvenir Shop will be exhibited internationally.
The exhibition invites people to see the Rising and its legacy from a fresh and irreverent angle, but Duffy also wants to raise serious questions about attitudes to violence, to commemoration, to the role of women, to the decline of rural Ireland and to Ireland’s place in the world. What, for example, she asks, is the real value of the “pocket” of Irish nationalism in the current global context?
Souvenir will be an antidote to taking the centenary too seriously. Prepare to be amused, stimulated, perhaps irritated, but above all intrigued.