A haunting Saturday afternoon in Skibbereen

March 11th, 2023 9:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

Brian Fay pencil on paper.

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I RECENTLY visited The Most Recent Forever exhibition by the artist Brian Fay at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen. 

Sometimes, I think I have a poor visual sense. I like visiting galleries but I find myself struggling with visual representations. I don’t have the language. 

But on that Saturday, I did not have to rely on the visuals compelling as they were. 

The work explores ‘ideas of temporality, change and ephemerality,’ words few of us encounter on a daily basis but things we experience on a daily basis but struggle to find a language for. 

It was a heady mix, one that you see the more than 50 people present leaning into. Caught in the ebb and flow of conversation between two people. A conversation that probed spectral presences, ghosts from the past. ‘Hauntology’, a word I had only recently encountered, one that evokes a sense of being haunted, of a world hanging over us, the past and the future, the things that shape our present lives. 

It was a Saturday that reminded me of another Saturday. A book rather than a day in the week. 

Ian McEwan’s day-in-the-life novel Saturday is set in central London on Saturday February 15th, 2003, almost 20 years to the day of the opening of The Most Recent Forever exhibition. On that Saturday in 2003, a large demonstration, in which over one million people participated, took place against the British and United States 2003 invasion of Iraq. Dublin’s march attracted around 100,000 people.  Though I was in Cork that day, I cannot remember how many attended that rally. But from memory it was a significant number. 

And across Europe and the United States people turned out in their millions. Australasia too.  Twenty years later, almost to the day, on February 18th 2023, tens of thousands of people participated in an anti-racism march in Dublin, migrant rights groups, trade unions, community groups, members of the Travelling community, LGBTQI+, political groups, women’s groups, and a whole host of others.   All with the refreshing and affirming messages of ‘Refugees Welcome’ and ‘More Blacks, More Dogs, More Irish’ inverting a century’s old slogan aimed at Irish people fleeing poverty and political oppression. 

From the veteran human rights activist Bernadette McAlliskey, a call for equality for all and a warning against the rise of fascism, and at which that other great veteran of human rights, Christy Moore, sang his compelling Spanish Civil War anthem Viva La Quinta Brigada while Adam Mohamed performed his own rap composition that included the lines ‘black, Asian or white blood is the same.’  I was not at the Dublin rally. I was in Skibbereen.  Art, politics and philosophy on an afternoon in West Cork, leaving me with a sense of how lucky we are here in this place. To have a space. To stop. To think. To experience. To encounter. To meet. To talk. To listen. To enjoy. To be challenged. That’s what Uillin does. That’s the opportunity that Uillin provides. That’s the opportunity more than 50 people on a Saturday afternoon availed of in Skibbereen. 

And perhaps that, too, is what art does? A world within a world. But not removed from the world. McEwan’s Saturday echoed to the sounds of marching feet. A challenge to all of those who argue for war, to all the war-mongers of the world. It did not stop the war in Iraq but that is not the issue. That was never going to happen. Those who minds are set on war, rarely deviate from their determination to maim and kill. Destroy all before them.

Equally, the conversation in Skibbereen will not dissuade all those who seek to divide and destroy. But in listening to two people in conversation in Skibbereen, the echoing sound of marching feet in Dublin was never far away. Because we, too, are haunted by our own past of ‘no Irish, no blacks need apply.’

A ghostly past that echoes down through the years. One that lingers in the communal memory. Memories that can be re-purposed, re-imagined. Serve an altogether different political narrative. 

That reimagined narrative was in full view in an RTÉ news bulletin later that evening. A white hand raised with a sign that read ‘More Refugees’ and another that read ‘More Irish, More Blacks, More dogs’.

Art, activism, politics and memories and an afternoon at the Uillin West Cork Arts Centre. What’s not to like? I’m glad I went along.

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