GERARD HOWLIN: Arts offered authentic retrospection, unlike State, media, and academia

The architecture of commemoration in 2016 was the State’s, but many of the ideas were bought-in, writes Gerard Howlin.

A little thing I learnt in 2016, which has fascinated me since, is Noblett’s sweetshop on Dublin’s O’Connell St as the opening tableau of the Easter Rising.

In John Bowman’s new Ireland: The Autobiography, the first gem he curates among many miscellanea is an account by the Archbishop of Dublin’s secretary on Easter Monday.

Count Plunkett, having gone to Drumcondra to alert an indisposed Archbishop Walsh, prevailed on Monsignor Curran to talk sense to the rebels before matters escalated.

Curran bicycled to the GPO and conducted an “audience” with Pádraig Pearse, to no avail, and noted how, “before 2pm, the crowds had greatly increased in numbers”. Looting had begun and “the first victim was Noblett’s sweetshop”.

At the monsignor’s behest, volunteers arrived and attempted to restore order, but it had only passing effect. He noted that the ringleaders were women, a contemporaneous observation that underlines their important role in the Rising.

“Disgusted” but having done his best, Curran “took lunch at the Gresham Hotel”. “Took” in the old fashioned sense of paying for what he ordered.

It was the year of Verdun and the Somme, but 2016 here, like 1966 before it, was primarily an expression of acceptable opinion by contemporary structures of influence.

Not least was the interplay of circles within Irish academia and media, more broadly called ‘influencers’. There isn’t an official Ireland to speak of, but there is an unofficial one. What constitutes it varies with issue and timing.

Unlike in 1966 or 1916, the Catholic Church is now largely absent, except as an object of abuse. An organisation that nominally controls most primary and secondary schools has no presence to speak of in our universities, and some of its bishops won’t send their seminarians to its own.

Conspicuously, it has no public intellectuals. Its occasional voices in the media are invariably dissonant.

Politics generally, and government specifically, is notionally central, but in reality diminished. That is not just a matter of declining regard, but more fundamentally of diminished capacity compared to expectation.

2016 marked the centenary of 1916 at home, and simultaneously an end of the illusion that small nation states can exercise the sovereignty vested in them by their founding mythologies.

The increasing congruence of real power in multilateralism or multinational corporations disconnects those not attuned to a globalising zeitgeist. It is an irony that tribes of the newly neglected can protest instantly via globalised communications structures that are graveyards for the sense of community they feel deprived of.

The diminished capacity of government to control, what in reality it struggles to even influence, energises disparagement, fuelled on unedited social media. The architecture of commemoration in 2016 was the State’s, but many of the ideas were bought-in, as was much of the choreography.

2016 was the year of the public intellectual. The aspired to ‘chairs’ being in studios not universities. Serious scholarship, which will take time to intellectually digest, was one good fruit of 2016.

The more in-public conversations, at least among scholars, was regrettably limited in the media to too tight a circle. Inclusion and reclaiming neglected histories may have been a theme of 2016, but in academia, that seldom extends to your colleagues.

One place that couldn’t be faulted for its range of goods was The Souvenir Shop by Rita Duffy, curated by Helen Carey. One of the Arts Council’s provocative 2016 projects, it was a conflation of that same Noblett’s sweetshop and Tom Clarke’s tobacconist’s nearby on what is now Parnell St.

Soaps with brands such as Imperial Palaver and Lady Lavatory featuring as wizened the femme fatale who was once the model for Cathleen Ní Houlihan.

Using everyday items found in the sort of small shop now almost extinct, Duffy, from a northern nationalist background and descended from a grandfather who died at the Somme, insidiously questioned relieved pieties, not least the soft soap, preferred by unofficial Ireland for moisturising our national identity in 2016.

Clarke’s was where, in a sense, the fight for Irish freedom began. The proprietor was the oldest signatory of the proclamation, and an old Fenian. Noblett’s was where the first popular action took place.

It would now be called people power. In light of the widening disconnect between power and responsibility and the unsustainable demand for state services without willingness to pay for them, the stealing of and then gorging on sweets as a first act of insurrection is an Irish epic worthy of equal treatment with the monumental marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Maclise in the National Gallery.

In a world at war, the events of Easter week in Dublin were not immediately understood as being of ultimate consequence. Observing great events elsewhere, Marcel Proust, when his indifferent health allowed, stood on the balcony of the Ritz in Paris to see German Gothas bomb the city.

Marvelling at the beginning of flights how “bombers dove and rose, making and unmaking their constellations”, pyrotechnic displays with previously unimaginable technology were more worrying inside the Ritz. He spied “women in dressing gowns or even peignoirs prowl[ing] the halls, clutching at their pearls”.

The scattering of pearls across Europe resulted in extraordinary gifts to literature. Among them was The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Krauss, the longest play ever written, with nearly 500 characters, and taking an estimated 10 nights to perform.

Written in German, it is a great satire on its surrounding society and a searing anti-war polemic. Previously untranslated to English, two versions appeared in 2016, one by the distinguished Irish scholar Patrick Healy a long-time Amsterdam resident and narrator of a complete recording of Finnegan’s Wake.

Healy’s translation has been critically praised for its sense of rhythm, lacking in the alternative more formal translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms.

Like Proust’s novel of seven volumes, In Search of Lost Time, The Last Days of Mankind is not just a huge document, it is an important interpretation of a world at war and the beginnings of globalisation, which would intimately undermine the nation states it gave birth to.

Unofficial Ireland didn’t notice. With the exception of Eileen Battersby writing in the Irish Times, airtime was given to considerably more banal material.

The theme of provincialism is a recurring Irish motif. One small but beautiful exhibition, Making Modern Ireland, curated by Gary A Boyd and John McLaughlin, was a personal highlight of 2016.

Its treatment of the State’s intermittent quest for excellence in design is an antidote to what was allowed blight our built heritage. One tiny thing, the smallest exhibit, in a small exhibition caught my eye. At independence, British stamps with the image of King George V were simply rubberstamped with the insignia of the new state. Business continued as usual.

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