Council declines motion on removal of republican art

Athlone town councillors have kicked to touch a motion that a state-owned artwork featuring messages sent by hunger strikers to their families should be removed from the town’s modern art gallery.

Fine Gael Cllr Mark Cooney’s proposal that Shane Cullen’s Fragmens sur le Institutions Republicaines IV be removed from Athlone’s Luan Gallery will now be sent to the gallery’s board for consideration.

The gallery, which opened in November is partly funded by Athlone Town Council and three councillors sit on its board.

Mr Cullen’s artwork consists of 96 panels carrying tiny pieces of text originally written on cigarette papers and smuggled out of Long Kesh in the 1980s.

It was acquired by the State in 2000 and eight panels are on loan to the Luan Gallery from the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Mr Cooney, whose father Patrick was justice minister from 1973-1977, stated that while art can be provocative and controversial, this work should be removed because “it is offensive to so many people”.

His colleague Cllr Gabrielle McFadden agreed, saying the piece gives “a heroic platform to republican paramilitaries”, and its location across from Custume Barracks is unacceptable, especially in the context of the death of local man Private Patrick Kelly during the rescue of Don Tidey who was kidnapped by the IRA.

She said that no publicly funded gallery should display any kind of political art.

Sinn Féin Cllr Paul Hogan said taking away the right of people to view the work themselves and make up their own minds was “not just censorship but disempowerment”.

His comments received loud cheers from a packed public gallery.

The town council’s written response said “the reputation of Athlone would suffer and the removal of a work of art would deliver a body blow to the new gallery”, and potentially damage relationships with the artists’ community and other galleries.

Councillors agreed by six votes to three to a compromise, amended proposal put forward by Luan Gallery board member Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne to refer the motion to the board.

Mr Cullen, who joined around 80 people in the public gallery, said he was shocked by the council’s decision. The work has been exhibited in locations including Derry and Portadown and while provocative, there have never been requests for its removal.

He said there is now a climate of fear where people are “accountable for their funding to public bodies who are interfering with programming and decision making in the arts now in a way that is very unhealthy”.

Athlone native Rhona Quigley attended the meeting “hoping that the council will have the sense not to censor art, not to censor what I as a citizen of Athlone want to see in my own gallery”.

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