Carol O’Callaghan explores a touring exhibition about how architecture, infrastructure and technology have shaped our nation.
Making Ireland Modern opened at the St Peter’s Cork exhibition space on North Main Street on Thursday night and runs until October 1.
It’s the brainchild of architects John McLaughlin and Gary Boyd who developed the idea over lunch one day in a café in Anglesea Street back in 2013 while both were teaching at UCC’s Cork Centre for Architectural Education.
The initial outcome of the idea became a proposal to the Arts Council to represent Ireland at the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2014, successfully manifesting as Infra-Éireann, of which Making Ireland Modern is a remaking as part of the Arts Council’s programme, ART: 2016.
It’s timely — and not without intention — as it explores the development of our State since the Easter Rising up to the present day, showcasing ten infrastructural developments, one for each decade, and covering the topics of electricity, health, television, aviation, motorways, data, negation, education, transportation and telecommunications.
At the root of the concept are two cultural references: One, a quote from Pádraig Pearse, someone we identify as a poet, a pedagogue and a revolutionary, though not particularly as an observer of how to build and develop our infrastructure as he describes in ‘From a Hermitage’ in 1913.
He says: “A free Ireland would drain the bogs, would harness the rivers, would plant the wastes, would nationalise the railways and the waterways, would improve agriculture, would protect fisheries, would foster industries, would promote commerce, would diminish extravagant expenditure.”
The second reference is a work by nationalist visual artist Seán Keating, whose painting Night’s Candles are Burnt Out is one of a series painted in the mid to late 1920s, dealing with the development of the Ardnacrusha electric power plant.
It was later described by the artist as representing a new dawn for Ireland, where electricity was the means to progress from the dim candlelight of colonialism to a bright future made possible by rural electrification and what that would mean for the development of our culture.
Together, such ideas did help expand Ireland culturally, helping to create a new identity where so much had been lost, like language, through colonialism.
Curiously, it was this which resonated with an international audience when the exhibition showed in its original format at the Venice Architectural Biennale, especially among visitors and fellow exhibitors from other previously colonised nations from Asia and Africa.
When the exhibition formed part of the Galway International Arts Festival recently, its component dealing with health cited Galway Regional Sanitorium which was built in the 1940s at a time when tuberculosis was rife.
It too resonated strongly with visitors, this time on a local level among those who recollected family members who had been treated there for TB.
Artifacts and ephemera also feature in the exhibition and include references to the earliest years of the Irish Free State.
In 1921 and ’22 there were no postage stamps available except for those bearing the silhouette of the then British monarch, so the State commissioned the London printer who made those stamps with the head of George V to overprint them with the words Saorstát Éireann, some of which An Post has now lent to the exhibition.
Surprisingly close to home for Gary Boyd, it was his mother-in-law who stepped in when he sought some of the WD & HO Wills tobacco company’s cigarette card collection from the 1920s depicting the Ardnacrusha power plant.
An enquiry to the ESB to borrow some to include in the exhibition yielded a reply that they were very rare but it turned out they weren’t quite so rare as Gary’s mother-in-law had her own father’s collection which she has now lent to the exhibition.
In the aviation section, a series of postcards written by airline passengers stopping over at Shannon Airport in the 1950s gives the viewer a very real and immediate engagement with the topic, a sort of personal potency, if you will.
But there’s also a social, political and educational potency to the exhibition as a whole, where all of the ten topics included are linked together by the necessity of architecture and its development across the ten decades through the primary concern of building a nation.
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