Would You Die for Ireland?
June 24 - August 10 2016
The LAB Gallery is pleased to present this exhibition of new work by Dublin based artist John Byrne, co-produced with the Centre Culturel Irelandais in Paris.
Best known for his public art commissions, The LAB has invited John Byrne to make a return to the gallery and reconsider his through provoking work, Would you die for Ireland (2003) initially presented in Kilmainham Gaol, involved the mic-wielding artist posing the emotive question to passers by on the streets of Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Those confronted also included members of the Defence Forces, Gardaí, The Orange Order and the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. For this new exhibition, Byrne researched the stories of the Monto in 1916 with local historian Terry Fagan and revisited his 2002 film, Would you die for Ireland? in the context of the decade of commemorations.
Alongside this iconic film will be several pieces that draw heavily from John’s personal experiences as a young child of the nationalist community growing up during the Troubles in Belfast. Peep reflects on the time in John’s young life when the Irish flag was banned (as were all other foreign flags). Here Byrne combines child hood memories of a visit to Casement Park with an encounter in Amsterdam’s red light district as a teenager. As a result the flag is presented as something illicit and slightly fetishised. Several large scale photographic works remember visits to Dublin and the Gaeltacht as a child.
Originally from Belfast, John works in multi-media and performance with a background in public art. Commissions include Dublin’s Last Supper, on the Millenium Walkway in Dublin and the Ballymun Equestrian Project. He attended the Art College in Belfast and then The Slade School in London after which he developed a body of work through performance culminating with his stint as Director of “The Border Interpretative Centre” (2000), a short lived visitor centre and gift shop on the main Dublin / Belfast Road.
This exhibition forms part of the LAB Gallery’s year long investigation into commemoration through a programme of commissions and partnerships with researchers, artists, historians, institutions and communities supported by Dublin City Council Commemorations programme and the Arts Council of Ireland.
An Ghaeltacht 1972
Re-enactment from memory.
As a 12 year old, in the summer of 1972 I went to the Gaeltacht in Gweedore, County Donegal. I’d heard lots of stories before going and was excited by the prospect of swimming in the sea, climbing mountains, céilís and meeting girls.
Our group, Christian Brothers boys from west Belfast arrived in a place called Dunlewey, which I’d never heard of until then. The tales of céilís and kissing girls had emanated from Bunbeg, Derrybeg, and Meenaclady. So, it turned out that this was the first year Dunlewey, remotely located at the foot of Mount Errigal, had hosted students. Our fellow pioneering scholars were De La Salle boys also from Belfast and CBS lads from Omagh. But no girls, apart from the few locals who would occasionally peep out from behind ditches or trees, well out of chatting up range. I was very disappointed.
Getting on with the other boys involved a lot of bravado, turf riots, fishing, competing over who could swim out the furthest on Dunlewey Lough and smoking. All the toughest fellas smoked and I made a serious effort to join them but I couldn’t, it made me sick.
Another way of attaining some status was to shoplift on trips to the coast. I was of course taught that stealing was wrong but being a slightly posh nonsmoker felt more wrong. Soon a day out to Bunbeg I lifted a bouquet of little tricolours from the counter of a souvenir shop. Quickly leaving the shop I panicked at the prospect of being sent home in shame and ran and hid behind a wall. I’m not sure how long I hid there for but it could’ve been an hour waiting for the return journey. As time passed I became less nervous anticipating the great impression I’d make on my fellow students.
I vaguely remember covertly distributing flags in the minibus but I can’t recall whether anyone was impressed. It’s the hiding I remember.
Bernard Byrne explains the significance of the bullet holes in Dublin’s GPO to his family.
Re-enactment from memory.
On Easter weekend 1968 my family came on a short family holiday from Belfast to Dublin, my first memory of the city. We all stayed in one room in a guesthouse overlooking what was then The Cattle Market on the North Circular Road. There were 6 of us then, my father Bernard (Barney) my mother Úna, my sisters Claire and Róisín, myself and my brother Vincent. My mother was expecting my youngest brother, Tony.
During the trip I remember visiting the Zoo, Moore Street, being impressed by the neon signs around O’Connell Street and having a Knickerbocker Glory in a place called The Irish Steakhouse beside O’Connell Bridge.
I particularly remember my father pointing out the bullet holes on the pillars of the GPO. I was very impressed by this, a first encounter with physical evidence of war and war loomed very large in my imagination then. Like most young boys I read war comics, played at war, cowboys and indians (sic) and had a considerable stash of toy soldiers and plastic armaments.
Unbeknown to my parents who were both then ambitious and in their prime, we were soon to find ourselves in the midst of a new war that would drastically alter their plans.
By 1971 my father was forced out of his grocery business and my mother, a trained nurse went back to nursing because of a shortage of staff in the hospitals. There were medical supplies under the beds in our house given to her by a local vigilante group for fear of what was yet to happen. On occasion we all took to the carpet in the living room in case of a ricochet when gunfire sounded close. This seemed unlikely to me in our out of the way cul-de-sac but a gable wall around the corner had been hit. I’d seen the bullet hole and I knew bullet holes.
My father knew Dublin a bit in 1968, mostly from his trips down to watch football matches. He seemed to know where to get his ‘on-holiday treat’, a mixed grill. This, though, was the first time he’d driven down in our grey Morris Minor and he was always lost and asking directions. Much obliged to you, he’d say each time when put right as we drove off to get lost again.
Direct from Paris where it was first installed in the courtyard of the Centre Curturel Irlandais, this work responds to the origins of the Irish flag. Modeled on the banner of the French Republic, the first tricolour of green, white and orange was made of silk in Paris in1848 by a group of French women sympathetic to the Irish cause and presented to Young Irelander Thomas Francis Meagher.
Peep references my earliest memories of seeing the flag at Gaelic football matches in Belfast’s Casement Park with my Father in the 1960’s. The GAA it seems, had an unspoken exemption from a Northern Ireland Government Act effectively banning the Irish flag. So these encounters with this high flying, pristine and exotic alignment of colours flown against the green Belfast hills instilled a certain excitement in my young and impressionable self that I have compared to an erotic experience.
Peep also speaks to the idylic fantasies of nationhood that emblems of state represent. In the case of Ireland, the illusive harmony between Green and Orange.
“I wasn’t sure growing up whether I was straight… Irish or slightly bi… national."
We watched BBC2, I was interested in other flags and emblems but it was the tricolour that really got me aroused. You saw so few of them. They were censored, hard to get and when you did see one you’d really drool over it… Would you look at the colours on that! We stood erect to her anthem. On first hearing Amhrán na bhFiann in English I thought the first line was “Soldiers are wee”…why wouldn’t they be?... Then I discovered it was “Soldiers are we”, us collectively. But then that was confusing because in my experience soldiers were they. They were soldiers, we were wee.
From A Border Worrier, John Byrne 1997
Four stills from the video piece Would you die for Ireland? 2016.