Irish town councillor tries to get state-owned piece of art removed from public gallery

Niall de Buitlear sez,

A member of Athlone Town Council is trying to have a state-owned piece of art removed from a public art gallery. The artwork by Shane Cullen features transcripts of messages smuggled in and out of the Long Kesh Prison by members of the IRA in the late 70s and early 80s. The work is part of the collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and was made in the mid 90s.

Cllr Mark Cooney, of the main government party Fine Gael, tabled a motion calling for the removal of the work from the Luan Gallery, Athlone. Cllr Cooney, compared the work to a piece glorifying Hitler "extolling the merits of exterminating the Jewish population". Cllr Gabrielle McFadden also of Fine Gael supported Cllr Cooney saying that public galleries should not show politically contentious art.

Independent Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne suggested the matter be referred to the board of Athlone Art and Heritage of which she and at least one other Councillor are members. The Councillors voted in favour of this proposal.

Attempt to Remove Artwork from Luan Gallery, Athlone (Thanks, Niall!)


  1. Wait, he used a Nazi analogy?  Well then that settles it!  No need for any further discussion.

  2. “politically contentious art” – does not every piece of art fall over this precipice under someone’s eye?

    I should think in making comparisons with the Nazi regime they should be more careful about public scrutiny of their own procedural regime.  Looks more than a little similar.

  3. Cllr Gabrielle McFadden also of Fine Gael supported Cllr Cooney saying that public galleries should not show politically contentious art.


  4. I honestly don’t understand the complaint.  I haven’t seen the piece, but I find it unlikely that “messages smuggled in and out of the Long Kesh Prison by members of the IRA in the late 70s and early 80s” would create a narrative that glorifies the British government.

    Do the messages make the IRA look like savages that deserved whatever treatment they got? 

    That’s the problem with censorship, I suppose.  These questions are never even asked, much less answered.

    1. I think it’s the other way round, that he feels it glorifies the IRA. Not everyone in the Republic saw/sees the IRA as heroes.

        1. Fine Gael was in agreement with the treaty with the British which founded the Irish Republic and split the North from the South, the IRA were opposed.

          1. Fine Gael advance their arguments through persuasion and the ballot box. The IRA attempted to advance their arguments with semtex and the armalite.  I think the concern here is about glorifying terrorist murderers, rather than concern about advancing one argument or another about which country Northern Ireland should be part of.  

          2. Art is not by necessity glorious and that work is hardly that.

            I am suspect of anyone that tries to bury history in any format, leaving only heroes, and unknown terrorist murderers.

            Although entirely different, it looks as solemn and unobtrusively immovable as the memorial honouring those lost in the US/Vietnam war.

            Such a thing tends only to acknowledge not glorify. There are always heroes on any side of any conflict of numbers, only a few seek glory and that is well understood, which is why many memorials or artworks regarding conflicts are rendered thus.

          3. This work forms part of the collection of the Irish state and is a record of an historical conflict. I am not aware that it directs anyone to come to any conclusion about terrorism or the glorification of violence.

            In any struggle for independence you need both people who are prepared to talk and people who are prepared to fight on both sides. Neither emerges with its honour intact but each has those who try to act with dignity. The historical struggle was between the native Irish and the British Empire. The British Empire was not going to withdraw from a colony so near home simply by strength of argument. To have withdrawn completely would have created a serious crisis of confidence for the Empire if it was seen to be so vulnerable so close to home. This is the end of a struggle which had potentially global repercussions. The history of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East might be very different if the Irish had not conceded to division and had forced a British withdrawal. It was a bitter struggle with a lot at stake. It is always left for subsequent generations to try to make sense of any agreement and the Irish state seems to have succeeded better than Fine Gael.
            This has as much to do with the historical antagonism between Fine Gael and the IRA as it does with any particular acts of violence.

  5. That’s it. Perhaps PhosPhorious thinks that this happened in Britain? it is happening in Athlone in the Republic of Ireland. The councillor thinks this piece glorifies the IRA’s bombings and shootings and is disrespectful to prison officers who are referred to as having committed sexual assaults on prisoners amongst other things. For those unfamiliar with the context it is the subject of the film Hunger.The artwork is a transcription of the messages and doesn’t endorse the content of the messages which are historically significant and many of them have been published elsewhere.

    1. “The artwork is a transcription of the messages and doesn’t endorse the content of the messages…”

      Well yea, when you take a message and literally carve it in stone, you’re endorsing it about as hard as possible.  I agree with the councilor this art is political and inflammatory.  But I also think that’s what art *should* be.

      1. The words are not carved in stone and there is not necessarily any endorsement of the content. It is certainly political but I would not call it inflammatory.

        The artist may believe the words are worth reading but that is not the same as saying he is endorsing the acts that they refer to.

        Here is a video of the artist speaking after the meeting

      2. Also you cannot take everything an artist does literally. Art is not about communicating in straightforward way where x+y=z. The content and the form it is presented in may be intentionally contradictory. Artists try to discover new things by turning things on their head. Just because the form of this work is similar to a war memorial does not mean that should be taken at face value as the artists intention.

        1. The photo above is a little blurry, but it looks like those words are literally carved in stone.  Am I wrong?

      3. Here is a quote from the artist which shows his work is not an attempt to glorify the IRA:

        “I wish the content (of the piece in the Luan Gallery) didn’t exist but the content is part of the historical record. … A lot of those cigarette papers and small bits of paper that were smuggled in and out of the prison are now in the collection of the national archives.”

  6. finally the doings  of Athlone Town Council (motto: Athlone, A City. population: 20k) get the international attention they deserve.

  7. The ‘piece’ strikes me as lazy, naive and artless. It’s simple sectarian chauvinism, and those that have to live with it are right to feel embarrassed.

    And the 90s were a rather different time for the Irish. They’d be right to take down their divisive, jingoistic banners and move forward.

  8. There are a number of contentious artworks that have offended someone, somewhere, occasionally to the point of demands for them to be removed (anyone remember ‘Piss Christ’?)  Isn’t good art supposed to make you think, and hopefully draw your own conclusions? 

    1. True, but that doesn’t mean that offending someone somewhere is automatically a sign of good art.  Sometimes it was just offensive.

      (Disclaimer: I don’t care enough to have an opinion on the artistic merits of this specific piece.)

      1. There’s no requirement for art to be “good” (a subjective criterion if there ever was one) to qualify as art. Offence or lack thereof isn’t a good metric for what is, or isn’t good art, either.

        But irrespective of quality, the claim that art should not be political is prima facie ludicrous.

  9. It’s worth noting that there were 3 negative comments in the guestbook out of 1,200 and the protestors who attended the meeting were supporting the artist. Many local people and people in Ireland generally are appalled at the suggestion of the artwork being removed.

  10. Here’s a comparison, for any American readers…

    If someone made a similar monument which was inscribed with messages smuggled into and out of Elmira Prison in New York by Confederate prisoners of war during the American Civil War, would there be such an uproar? How about if instead it was Union prisoners passing messages into and out of Andersonville? Both saw mortality rate in excess of 25%.

    The dead are dead. They cannot hurt anyone any more. But we need to remember why they fought. We need to understand what anger and pain and desperation and pride can do, not just to “them”, but also to “us”. We need to find the merit in the words and deeds of our “enemies”, so that the next time such words are spoken, we listen and speak, and find a mutual solution before more people start killing and dying.

    War is not black and white, and no one side is ever innocent or pure. Arguing over who committed the bigger attrocities doesn’t solve anything. Eventually, there must be an end. Eventually there must be forgiveness and acceptance. Otherwise all that we end up with is forgetfulness, and then afterward, repetition.

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