Dragons and demons light up Shandon

SEEKING to invoke an atmosphere of street carnival that is often absent from more conventional parades in the city, the Dragon of Shandon takes advantage of the towering church, narrow lanes and particular multi-ethnic ambiance of the city’s most famous area to create an event full of noise and spectacle.

At the heart of the parade is a 12m dragon constructed of sellotape. It will be accompanied by lamps and drums and assorted creatures and masked figures from the underworld. Expect also to hear howls and wails of anguish from the Cork Scream Choir.

Shandon is perhaps the perfect place for such a parade evoking comparisons with the dramatic Easter parades in Spanish villages with menacing hooded figures and with the sounds of drums echoing through narrow streets.

It is also appropriate that the parade is located in the heart of the northside as the ethos behind the parade is strongly based on community involvement. An initiative from Cork Community Art Link located on Shandon Street, the parade will feature the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who have participated in an extensive outreach programme within the local area.

The creative director is Frenchman William Frode de la Foret, who first visited Ireland in the 1970s and settled here in 1992. He admits that his first experience of an Irish parade was less than inspiring.

“When I heard there would be a big parade on St Patrick’s Day I was very excited,” he recalls. “Then a truck rolled past advertising windows, then a gas truck and then some nuns with a banner. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Since then things have improved and we participated in St Patrick’s Day parades in Cork for a number of years. But I always felt that since we couldn’t compete with Dublin in terms of resources, why not make the Cork parade a carnival of the people? Why not have 20,000 Cork people in the parade rather than professional or commercially sponsored floats?”

As a founding member of Cork Community Art Link, Frode de la Foret is very passionate about the role that community art can play in public life. As part of its What If? programme, the organisation develops innovative arts projects using urban public space.

“When I first came here in the 1970s and later in the 1990s, I was amazed that I could talk and engage with the older community because there had been a big rupture between the generations in France,” he recalls.

“In modern Ireland, and particularly with the advent of internet technology, this rupture is something that is now happening in Ireland. Who ordained, for example, that the city centre should only be for shoppers and that unless you are between 20 and 45 and have a fair amount of disposable income, there really is nothing there for you? Why should kids be stopped from skateboarding in the city which belongs to them, as much as it does to anyone else?

“In my early years here I remember that community boards consisted of the parish priest and members from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. I remember having to organise a workshop for children in a car park and they looked at me as if I was evil when I argued my case with them. Nowadays at similar meetings, boards are often dominated by business interests instead; the views of young people or different nationalities are still not represented.”

Somewhat disillusioned with the restrictions of conventional parades, the Dragon of Shandon parade was an effort to try something new and dynamic that would involve the local community. The festival of Samhain was a hugely important date in Celtic life which was exported to America and gradually morphed into the current Halloween festival.

For Frode de la Foret, linking in with this traditional festival seemed the right placed to start. “I came up with idea of a dragon because I wanted something big and dramatic,” he says. “Shandon is perfect, not only because of the setting, but also because it is at the heart of the Northside community within which we work. We want to develop a sense of ownership and pride within the community; a feeling that this is their festival.”

Hampered by a lack of resources and seeking to test the waters, the original parade in 2006 was small, but since then it has rapidly gained momentum and is now firmly established.

This year illustrator William Corbett has developed a mini graphic novel based on the true life character of Baron Spolasco. He was a flamboyant quack who survived a shipwreck off the Cork coast and was tried for manslaughter due to his less than successful medical interventions. His story forms an outline plot for the parade.

“Although the parade revolves around a real Cork story, it is a very fluid concept,” he says. “Different groups will go away with an idea from this story and come back with something which is uniquely theirs and maybe very different to what you first envisaged. But that is what this parade is all about; it evolves over time.

“Hundreds of people from FÁS workers to youth groups will be involved and participation is more important than the art. We also work with some individuals that have certain issues in their lives, so on occasions not all the people who are were supposed to participate turn up. That is ok; we work around it.”

For Frode de la Foret this is what community art should be about. It should enhance the daily lives of the people who live in the city and it shouldn’t be elitist.

“The Irish art world has been very conservative in the past and very arrogant,” he observes. “When I came here first everyone was trying to get their art into the same small number of galleries and the same artists and administrators turn up at galleries time and time again.”

“Irish art has its own pedantic language which excludes people; in contrast we want to put people at the heart of the process. On Halloween the pubs will have their theme nights and the city will fill with drunken people of a certain age. Is everyone else supposed to just watch television?

“The Dragon of Shandon parade is something that older people and families can attend, where newcomers and older residents can mix with each other and hopefully take pride in something that belongs to them.

“Halloween traditionally involved social interaction between the generations, it was about bonfires and bobbing for apples; it shouldn’t necessarily be about picking a cheap costume from Hong Kong which has no cultural relevance and collecting as many sweets as possible or going out and getting blind drunk.

“Each year the volunteers will bring their families and neighbours and we have children who experience the feeling that comes from 4,000 or 5,000 people cheering for them. A carnival should not be about commercial or even artistic interests; at its heart it should be about the people and the community they live in and it should be fun.”

* The show starts at 6.30pm on Monday, October 31, at the Shandon Craft Centre, Cork.


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