A year of haunting and ghosts in Irish art - but the only direction left is up

 

CULTURE SHOCK: ‘Laundry’at the Magdalen laundry, Seán McDermott Street, Dublin

This was a year of ghosts and haunting in Irish art, and nothing haunts the imagination as persistently as Anu Productions’ extraordinary inhabiting of the intact Magdalen laundry five minutes’ walk from the bustle of O’Connell Street in Dublin. It is the most impressive piece of site-specific theatre I’ve seen, managing to be, by turns, almost unbearably “real” and elegantly poetic, harshly confrontational and gently heartbreaking. Laundrywas not just a stunning achievement for Louise Lowe and her team but also the centrepiece of a programme of site-specific and memory-based work that made the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival the most significant in many years.

Bert Jansch

at Marlay Park, Dublin

There’s a poignancy to remembering the great Scottish guitarist playing in Dublin in July through the prism of his early death less than three months later. Jansch had been ill with lung cancer for the past few years, but he was in wonderful form. Perhaps thoughts of mortality had something to do with it, but he had that lovely quality of the late-stage artist that Patrick Kavanagh called “not caring”. It’s not at all the same thing as being careless, suggesting rather the hard-won freedom of having nothing to prove. His was the sweet ease of absolute accomplishment.

‘Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom’

by Tim Robinson

In this age of tunnel-vision specialisms, Tim Robinson’s free-ranging intellect is a joy and a marvel. The wonder, though, is not the range of his skills as a visual artist, mathematician, mapmaker, folklorist, anthropologist, geographer, cultural historian and naturalist. It is his capacity to weave them all, with the sturdy thread of his tough and elegant prose, into a single beautiful cloth. This, the triumphant conclusion of his great trilogy on Connemara, is an immensely uplifting book, reminding us, as we survey the ruins of one version of Ireland, that there are other, richer possibilities in our many-layered culture.

‘The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956’

How lovely it is that the only saint produced by Catholic Ireland in the 20th century was a Protestant atheist. The second, superbly edited volume of Beckett’s letters traces the years when he went from obscurity to fame (or, as he would have preferred, infamy). The personality that emerges under this pressure is infinitely admirable: kind and generous to others, utterly unyielding in defence of the integrity of his own work. One sentence sums up the combination: “If there is one thing I cannot do it is talk about my work or ‘explain’ it except over the third bottle with an indulgent friend.” The capacity for friendship is every bit as evident as the famous implacability.

‘Katie Cruel’

by Karen Dalton

The estimable Philip King played this track on South Wind Blowsduring the summer, and it has been in my head since. I’d never heard of Dalton, except that Bob Dylan in Chroniclesdescribes her as his favourite singer on the early-1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. She never made it big and died in 1993 after a long struggle with drugs and alcohol. This track, from 1971, has all the anguish that must have underlain such a fate. It has a coruscating bleakness and a chorus that chimed with the year: “If I was where I would be / I would be where I am not / Here I am where I must be / Go where I would, I cannot.”

Anthony Haughey’s photographs of ghost estates

A lot of the interesting visual art this year seemed to concern the liminal spaces at the edges of towns and cities, Patricia Burns’s Hinterland paintings at the Triskel in Cork (published as a book by Gandon) being an outstanding example. But the most potent images are probably Anthony Haughey’s extraordinary sequence of photographs of ghost estates and abandoned building projects. Captured in the very low light of day’s end, they glow eerily with what Wordsworth called “the light of setting suns”, giving them the mythic feel of ruins from a lost civilisation. Though, in this case, “civilisation” may not be quite the right word.

Mark Rylance

in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem

One of the great performances, the kind you feel blessed to have experienced. Rylance’s epic creation of the doomed, reckless, defiant, anarchic Rooster Byron takes you back not just to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud but to David Garrick and John Philip Kemble. It’s the kind of English acting you get when performers with Shakespeare in their blood and bones bring all that heroic poetry to bear on a contemporary character.

Cillian Murphy

in Enda Walsh’s Misterman

The nearest Irish equivalent to Rylance’s immense stage presence was Cillian Murphy’s performance as the demented protagonist of Enda Walsh’s dark monologue at Galway Arts Festival. Murphy managed to do two impossible and apparently incompatible things at the same time: to occupy on his own a cavernous vertical and horizontal space and to achieve a frighteningly intimate intensity. No one can act so powerfully with his eyes.

‘Rian’

by Fabulous Beast

If Riverdancecaptured (and helped to create) the mood of boomtime Ireland, this delightful collaboration between the choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and the musician Liam Ó Maonlaí hit the right note for where we are now. It felt like a ritual lifting of the gloom and shame, an opening up of buried energies, not as an exercise in nostalgia but through a more complex and freer idea of cultural globalisation than the one we have lived through.

‘New Collected Poems’

by Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon was 70 this year, and Gallery Press brought out a handsome new version of his Collected Poems, with a generous dose of work from the last decade, including the luminous Harbour Lights. Mahon’s middle-era classics ( The Last of the Fire Kings, The Snow Party, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, Tractatus) shine with undimmed lustre. But it is startling to realise how sharply political are the later, more discursive poems. How’s the following for prescience, from the late-1990s poem America Deserta: “not long before / the great money scam begins its long decline / to pot-holed roads and unfinished construction sites”? The last line of the book, though, has a sweeter wisdom: “The only direction left is up.”