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Caral, art won't be another weapon in republican struggle

Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin can't understand why artists, by and large, ignored the Troubles. She should read George Orwell on why political propaganda makes bad art, writes Malachi O'Doherty.

Published 21/10/2015

Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin
Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

One of the things that might be difficult to explain if you are an Irish republican is how little that tradition registers in Irish art.

I can imagine a tourist who has read about the Irish freedom struggle coming to Dublin or Belfast and expecting the museums and art galleries and bookshops to be full of works that glorify or at least endorse the struggle of the Irish people over the centuries to be free of the British yoke.

But that's not what is there. There are no great portraits in the Ulster Museum of Bobby Sands, or Joe McCann, or Maire Drumm.

There is a wonderful exhibition of Colin Davidson's portraits of victims but, as it includes people bereaved by the IRA, it is not the selection that republicans would have made.

The greatest play written yet to mark 1916 takes us back to the battlefields of Flanders. It is Frank McGuinness's Observe The Sons of Ulster, Marching Towards The Somme.

So, republicanism has a problem. It may be good at rewriting history in political speeches, but art and culture take little notice.

And, if they do dwell on the recent past, it tends not to affirm the simple vision of a resistance struggle against imperial evil.

Our Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Caral Ni Chuilin, told an audience in An Culturlann last week that she wonders why artists ignored her struggle.

"Why, in the mouth of some of the biggest human rights abuses, in my opinion, did the whole notion of resistance not transcend to art and why did art turn its back on communities? That's something I have struggled with and still struggle with," she said.

Well she might struggle with it. Struggle a little harder and she might reach an important insight.

She imagines a past in which resistance was expressed by communities rather than by paramilitary organisations.

I lived in a flat above her; was I not part of her community? Is there a political qualification for being part of a community?

She cited Bobby Sands's claim that the men of art had "lost their heart".

And it must have felt like that in the H-Blocks in 1981, when you were sacrificing your life for the struggle and the whole country wasn't rising up behind you.

Caral wants art to express resistance.

She should go and read Orwell on how political propaganda makes bad art.

The very poetry of Sands is an example of that. For Sands may have been a man of extraordinary conviction and courage, but he was not a poet, and it is a little disheartening to find that we have a Culture Minister who thinks he was.

It isn't certainty that produces art; it is questing and doubt.

And it turns out that Caral is as fundamentalist as her predecessor Nelson McCausland, who sought to use the influence of his office to have Creationism enshrined in the Ulster Museum.

This is, first and foremost, embarrassing.

It is also a signal to funded groups that we have orthodoxies they'd be as well subscribing to if they want to keep their money.

Ideally, of course, artists would like to be left alone to do what their inspiration guides them to, but governments help fund the arts because they see economic value in them, tourist attractions and prestige.

Caral is, perhaps, a global exception in that she seems to want the State to fund resistance to the state.

Over in South Korea they are interfering in a more practical way. There, the State has done what, I suspect, Sinn Fein would love to do: it has scrapped history books which teach history in ways the Government doesn't like and commissioned a correct history for the schools.

Like Stalin, it wants to impose a simple narrative of the State's history and destiny.

It isn't enough that people live their lives, manage as they can and have their own stories to tell; there has to be a national story.

And, next year, we will be celebrating the 1916 Rising and Patrick Pearse's vision of an Irish national story.

By this story, the central concern of all people is - or ought to be - the overthrow of the British. But is it?

Certainly, a lot of people died in the effort, but most of us think they could have put their lives to better use.

For 10 years I ran a memoir-writing night class at Queen's and very few of those who came wanted to write about the Troubles.

They had been shaped by other things.

More people continued to die in road traffic accidents, or from heart disease and cancer.

There were lots of stories about the fascistic Irish fathers of a generation ago. Alcohol brought more grief than either the Brits or the paramilitaries.

And very few spent their lives fretting about British imperialism, or even quite believed that the Government they lived under, and many worked for, was what Gerry Adams in 1976 called "one of the most corrupt imperial manifestations that humanity has ever known".

Even then republicans struggled to list the evils of "imperialism", and Adams included among them the lack of play centres in Ballymurphy.

Coming from a revolutionary leader of men, who drew the dole to subsidise their £20 a week IRA wages, this would have seemed a little overstated to the people who suffered under Apartheid, or Israeli occupation.

It's as well to remember that the civil rights struggle started around demands for fair distribution of council housing and council votes, and that real evil empires don't give any houses or votes to the poor at all.

Could it be that there are dark, censorious forces afoot, stamping out references to the Troubles?

Certainly, I have had both broadcasters and publishers reject proposals from me on the grounds that the Troubles are boring, that nobody wants to see plays, or read books, about the horrors of the past.

But it is not true that our artists had no heart and ignored the Troubles.

Two great artists who died in the last month, Brian Friel and Joe McWilliams, were remarked on for their courage with which they did address the Troubles.

And it may have escaped republicans that many artists addressed issues raised by the Troubles without labelling them in political terms.

One of Brian Friel's earliest plays, The Enemy Within, was about how the demands of fighting factions and clan squabbles can pull you away from your vocation and ruin your chances of finding a meaning in your life.

It was written in 1962 and reads now like an urging to the people of that time not to get pulled back.

Apply that thinking to the hunger strike period and Friel would have been telling the artists to stick to the job in hand of telling their own truth and not to be distracted by the call from Bobby Sands to make his case for him.

Caral should read it.

Belfast Telegraph

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