Above: Some shots from the Souvenir Shop.
Souvenir Shop is one of the Arts Council’s nine major Easter 1916 commemorative projects. The shop is located in a ramshackle old Georgian house on North Great George’s St. Rita Duffy has filled the shop with subversive products inspired by the revolutionary 1916 period. Catriona Devery caught up with Rita to talk about the show.
Tell us a little bit about this project and where it came from?
I was inspired by Thomas Clarke’s shop. That was my starting point for 1916 research. I was very interested in the fact that Thomas Clarke had been imprisoned, radicalised, and became a very, very committed but I suppose damaged republican, then came back to Dublin with his wife to set up shop. In the front they were selling tobacco and newspapers, but there was a very strong sense of subversion, and otherness going on.
The whole idea was to present things, to use the form of a shop. The exchange, the dialogue, the conversation. I put a call out to the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, a kind of a silent but very formidable association. I regard them as very much the kind of backbone, the people’s army of Ireland. I approached them with a view to getting them to knit and to sew, make jams and chutneys.
Obviously living in Ballyconnell, in the border area, I’m very aware of the conversations that happen in shops. This venue has a very specific feel, it’s old crumbling, tenement, Georgian Dublin. We closed the shutters so you couldn’t see the cars. So you get a real sense that you could be in Dublin 1916. Immediately I was interested in the partitions, the traces of partitions in the ceiling and the walls. It’s very evocative of the big result of the 1916 rebellion, partition. There’s a whole range of items that you can pick up, read the text on. Your initial reaction might be to laugh, but this is not a poke fun thing. It’s about subversion.
Were everyday objects and everyday people important to you in delivering this project?
There’s a playfulness with playing shop but at the same time it is a vehicle for a contemporary art project. People will come into a shop; they’ll think twice about going into a gallery. It’s about breaking down the barriers that stop people engaging. Máire (a visitor to the shop who has been contributing knitted objects to the exhibition) came in here because the door was open. This is a woman living in Ballymun, in Dublin doing her shopping. She saw the knitting. It’s not a kind of shabby chic, bijou shop, it’s an art installation, and she immediately responded to what she saw.
She went home and brought her creativity into the project. It’s one of those rare things, that you can’t really plan for. You realise that creativity is like some sort of oxygen. It’s there on a daily basis, the chaos, the rush of traffic, the bustle, the hassle. It’s there and it gives us sanctuary, and nourishment, and it’s the reason why public money should go into art projects.
The objects in the shop, what kind of purpose do you think they serve?
There are all sorts – we’ve got our Patriot Tea – you can open that, and drink that. You’ve got Rathmines Rancour, and Foxrock Sniff (scents). I’m taking a political swipe at comfortable middle class Dublin who by and large weren’t affected by anything to do with this ‘trouble in the street’ and I think the world over that comfortable middle class is always tucked away in the suburbs, with a BMW parked in the drive. They tend to be somewhat immune or secured away, from the everyday trouble and strife. Certainly revolutions and civil disturbance tend not to happen in the suburbs.
My grandfather died in the Somme. My mother was from the South, my father was from Belfast. I started pulling together narratives and stories, you know my grandmother’s letter – became a teatowel. Teatowels were a great way of creating something familiar and everyday, but they loan themselves beautifully to reproducing an image. Now people can take these home and dry their dishes with them, or they can frame them or do whatever.
The jams and chutneys, we bought those off a very good woman who makes jams and chutneys. The Border Busters chutney, is a specific kind of story, where a big yellow digger was used to keep the road open, and the British army kept closing the road in that time of unapproved roads, where they were trying to secure the border.
Securing borders is something that we’re very conscious of in 2016. It’s also something I lived through over the past thirty, forty years of my life. And borders are porous, because humans have ingenuity – they dig beneath, they fly above, they swim across. So it’s very current, but I’m dealing with it on a jar of pickles. Because we’re still in a pickle about this. Depends how much thought you want to put into it.
What sources did you use for your research?
Publications, historical texts, YouTube, anywhere I was getting information. The main thing I was doing was just kind of gleaning stuff. Because it’s not a heritage project. It’s not an academic project. I would read through things and anything that resonated with me, emotionally or intellectually, I went with that. The etched forest glass, the dialogue between Lily and James Connolly, recounted by their daughter, that came straight off YouTube where she talks about that. It’s just such an emotional exchange, and it’s so authentic.
The cushion covers that were embroidered – say this one “All marches, parades and manoeuvres are cancelled”. That’s what Eoin MacNeill said before Easter 1916, to call it off. I thought that was an appropriate thing to put on a cushion, because it was like alright lads, stay on your sofas – it’s all off. It seemed like a good way to deliver that. It works as an art work.
This is one of 9 projects chosen by the Arts Council to officially commemorate 1916. How did you feel about being part of the state response to such a historical event?
I was delighted to get an opportunity – because obviously without the funding, we wouldn’t be standing here doing this. Helen Carey, the curator, found the venue, we’ve worked together well. How do I feel about being part of the state? I didn’t have anybody come and say ‘oh you can’t do that’.
I put the proposal together, we put it pretty much up front what we were going to do. I’m not sure whether they knew exactly what we were going to do. There is an element of subversion to this. But you know, the Arts Council commissioned it and they were brave enough to say ‘go and do’. It’s been a fantastic opportunity. And as someone from the North, I grew up and worked in Belfast for most of my career. So it’s been really interesting to come to Dublin. And to be part of this year of examining, looking, discussing, celebrating. I mean there’s been a lot of state pomp and flag waving that I think, oh forget that.
Did you engage with the wider State commemoration of 1916?
I haven’t really engaged with state commemoration. I’ve been so solidly focussed on what I’m doing, what I’m delivering. I’ve definitely stepped into provocative territory, you know with the grave candles, it’s almost fashionable to have these candles in your bohemian apartment in New York. I’ve used them as a kind of vehicle to put some of the obvious heroes – you know, Pearse, Collins, Clarke, Plunkett, Connolly – and ‘generic patriot’ standing in front of a peat briquette, De Valera.
Also in the mix I’ve thrown in Mairead Farrell, Bobby Sands – who has completely sold out – and this one here, ‘What’s coming’; this is a piece of text written by Pearse, that when you read it, it actually really could be text written by ISIS. So I’m posing a question with this, do we just have to wait another 100 years before people like Mairead Farrell and Bobby Sands are brought into the mix of it all? Whereas now I think people would be very nervous of putting these individuals with these other ones, who’ve been almost canonised. The shop runs until June 11, you can find out more information about it here. Read our piece on the politics of commemoration here.