Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Quick: where were you when the Pope came to Ireland? Me, I’ve got no idea. Before I’m excommunicated, I should point out that’s because I’m not Irish, and wasn’t living in Ireland at the time of the papal visit.

Ask me, though, where I was for the Queen’s Silver Jublilee (two years before all Irish babies started being called John Paul) or where I was for Charles and Diana’s wedding, and I’m sorted. I can describe the bunting, my dress (no, I wasn’t invited, but that didn’t stop me dressing up), our village street party, the works.

Here’s the thing. I’m not Royalist, but I’m hugely pro big, communal events. It’s a relatively unfashionable stance, but I ADORE those nation-binding moments.  The non-demonstrative English most often break down the reserve (and break down) at sporting events. Jonny Wilkinson’s last-ditch drop kick in the Rugby World Cup. Tiny Michael Owen’s mazy run against Argentina in 1998 (if only I’d had to Google that date; but alas, no).  These are times when we drop our polite ‘each wo/man is an island’ masks and stand together, roaring our heads off. For me, nothing can beat that sort of collective emotion.

It’s something I’ve always liked about weddings, too. Whenever I’m on my way to a wedding, I think about all the other people who’ve woken up that morning and thought, ‘today I’m going to see X&X get married’. There’s something incredibly rousing about the collective spirit, the joint goodwill. I have no idea why it moves me so much, but it always has.

All together now...

(image c/o scripting.com)

God, even at the London marathon a couple of weeks ago, 24 miles in and feeling as if I was encased in a steel tube, I looked around at the crowds yelling encouragement at hordes of random strangers, heard the band playing (yes, really) and beamed a Cheshire cat grin of ‘I’m bloody DOING this’. Running long distances is the world’s dullest thing, usually. Running long distances with 40,000 other people and a crowd of probably double that is incredibly uplifting (though not so uplifting that I’d ever want to do it again).

It’s in that same vein that I’m looking forward to the Big Day today. I’m hardly going to be in my wedding finery, and I’m certainly not going to be down at Trafalgar Square, but it’s an Occasion, one that nobody is escaping, cynical or not. In this day and age, there’s a lot to be said for that.


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Self-portrait with Monkeys (1943) - Frida Kahlo

Who needs or wants to know about the inner workings of other people’s relationships? About the minor detail of their lives? We may not need to know but we certainly want to know about some couples. Often the stormier the pairing, the more drawn we are to the drama. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, for example; or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are a good example of a couple that excite curiosity. And because of their meticulous recording of their lives through art, as well as some artful myth spinning, we know a lot about a lot of their life together. They married each other twice. He – and then she – was serially unfaithful. Between them they notched up as lovers famous communists and actors, painters and photographers, including Leon Trotsky and Paulette Goddard. Rivera even had an affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina.

A joint exhibition of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s work was launched on Tuesday night at IMMA in Dublin. It is comprised of masterpieces from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. At the opening we were treated to Mexican beer and margaritas and even a sparky mariachi band, who had their Irish-based compatriots singing along with gusto. The great hall was thronged with people, excited about this particular exhibition making its way to Ireland. It is a splash of carnival in a dull, grey country and we surely need that.

Our new Arts Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, gave his first major public speech since his appointment and he mentioned several projects with enthusiasm: a new Centre for Literary Excellence in Dublin; he also plans to set up an Arts TV Channel and he is going to prioritise arts education in primary schools. All good news.

Frida Kahlo lived her life in pain and her colour-rich paintings are an autobiography of her love-hate relationship with her physical self, her love for and nurturing of Diego, and her missed chances at motherhood. Rivera’s work is more monumental and political – they were both Communists – and his palette is often more muted than his wife’s.

Kahlo’s self-portraits – and there are many – are compelling: her gaze is head-on and she is often dressed in the vivid Tejuana style of dress she adopted, with elaborate neckpieces and braided hair. My favourite of these is Self-portrait with Necklace, a quiet, earlier piece, though the exhibition includes more well known works such as Self-portrait with Monkeys. Rivera’s stunning Calla Lily Vendors is also on show; he was a painter of the people and he delighted in ordinary scenes of workers going about their business.

The exhibition contains – as well as paintings – drawings, photographs of the artists, diary pages with sketches, collages and lithographs. It is a rich collection of artworks and there is no doubt that thousands of people will flock to it over the next few months, and so they should. It is well worth the trip to see such iconic work ‘in the flesh’.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Masterpieces of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection runs until the 26th June at IMMA. Admission €5, concessions €3.

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Feminist Fun Sunday

There’s a whole lot of feminism going on in Dublin today – Choice Ireland’s annual Feminist Walking Tour of Dublin kicks off at the gates of St Stephen’s Green (which gates aren’t specified, but we’d guess the Fusiliers’ Arch one at the top of Grafton Street) at 1 today, if you’d like to explore Irish women’s history. And at 3pm in City Hall on Dame Street our own Anna Carey joins Victoria White, Dr Ann Matthews and Susan McKay for a discussion of the future for Irish women as part of the Dublin Book Festival.

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In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana an undercover agent, Beatrice, is sent from London to assist Wormold.  On her first night in Cuba she goes out to the most popular nightclub in town and douses a prominent policeman in soda water.  When our (anti)hero chastises her for making herself so conspicuous, she replies with a wonderfully insightful piece of human observation: “Nobody will ask questions any more about who I am. They have the answer.”

Just as Beatrice became “the woman who siphoned the policeman”, Beatrix Potter is the author of the Peter Rabbit books, and Florence Nightingale is the “Lady with the Lamp”. Right?

However, there is more to these two famous women than is commonly known: both of them were talented scientists.

Beatrix Potter didn’t only draw rabbits in blue jackets, she also made careful drawings of her observations down the microscope – at the time the only way to record microscopic images. Through careful observation and experimentation she was one of the first to discover that lichens – those flaky, crusty things you see growing on tree bark and rocks – are not one organism, but two organisms, a fungus and an alga, living in a close, symbiotic relationship.

Unfortunately, she was seriously discouraged in her career by the scientific establishment. As a woman she was not permitted to present her own work to the Linnean Society and had to send her uncle in her stead (the Linnean Society eventually apologised in 1997 for how they had treated her). Beatrix put away her microscope, and focussed instead on her children’s stories.

Florence Nightingale’s story is different in that she was recognised during her lifetime; it seems it is only in retrospect that we have simplified her biography to “Lady with the Lamp”.

The woman who invented nursing did much more than dab an occasional brow and console the dying.  She revolutionised hospital care and crucially demonstrated the importance of hygiene and sanitary practices in patient outcomes. This was at a time when reputation and standing were the most convincing attributes someone could possess, neither of which Ms Nightingale had in abundance.

How could this unconventional person, who happened to also be a woman, persuade the medical establishment to alter their practices?

Florence Nightingale harnessed the undeniable truth and clarity of carefully collected and presented statistics to demonstrate the clear benefits of proper sanitation. It sounds obvious to us today, trained as we are from childhood, that washing your hands, keeping wounds clean, and household sanitation are important for good health, but at the time it was not accepted that there were microscopic things on your hands and on other surfaces that could make you sick.

Florence Nightingale’s work collecting, analysing and presenting statistics was brilliant, and succeeded in convincing the skeptical medical establishment of the importance of santitation.  In recognition she was made the first ever female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and we continue to benefit from her careful work today.

I was delighted to learn all this, only quite recently, and to discover that these women, whom I thought I knew so well, were far more inspirational than I had realised.  Both of them unconventional, intelligent, and ahead of their time.

Occasionally it’s worth remembering to look beyond the simple biography.

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I adore a good mystery. I relish a jigsaw-like story where I only know some of the fragments and have to piece them together carefully, squinting to try and envision the complete image.

When I found out about the artist Henry Darger, for example, I was fascinated – this man lived what many would have considered a sad, lonely life, but behind closed doors he created what posthumously became some of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.

The newly emerged story of Vivian Maier, then, is just the sort of mystery that gets my nose twitching.


All photographs taken by Vivian Maier, taken from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/. Copyright of Maloof Collection

What we know about Vivian is this: she was a nanny; she spoke with a French accent; she lived in Chicago for part of her life; she was well-read, interested in art and culture…and she took some of the most beautiful street photographs you will ever see.

Copyright Maloof Collection

And we know this, too – that her talent was secret until after her death; and that there are still thousands more of her photographs yet to be developed.

We can thank Chicagoan John Maloof for bringing Vivian’s work to us. Back in 2007, he was a 26-year-old real estate agent and co-authoring a book about his local neighbourhood. He went to an auction looking for material for this book and bought a box, filled with negatives, from a repossessed  storage locker , thinking there may be some photos of the local suburbs inside.

What he found inside the box (which cost him $400) were 30,000 negatives, all of street scenes from Chicago and beyond.  These photographs stunned him, so much so that he contacted the buyers of the other boxes and bought them all from them. That made him the owner of around 100,000 negatives and boxes of undeveloped film – all taken by a person whose name he didn’t even know.

One day, John found the name ‘Vivian Maier’ scribbled on a photo-lab envelope stuffed inside one of the boxes. Mystery (almost) solved. He wanted to meet Vivian, to tell her how beautiful he found her work, to ask her what inspired her and if she could teach him how to take such enchanting photographs. He says on his blog:

“It took me days to look through all of her work. It inspired me to pick up photography myself. Little by little, as I progressed as a photographer, I would revisit Vivian’s negatives and I would “see” more in her work. I bought her same camera and took to the same streets soon to realize how difficult it was to make images of her caliber. I discovered the eye she had for photography through my own practice. Needless to say, I am attached to her work.”

But John and Vivian never met.

Vivian had slipped on ice just months before the boxes of her work were sold, and after a spell in a nursing home, she died, at the age of 83.

Through his own research, John was able to wipe the dust off his own mental picture of Vivian and her life. He discovered she was born in New York in 1926, and lived in France and New York growing up. By her mid-20s, she was living permanently in the US, where she worked for a number of different families as a nanny.

The families who she worked with told John that Vivian was a feminist, an independent woman with an appetite for travel and a love for movies. She entertained the children by bringing them on ‘adventures’. She wore men’s clothes and was seen by some as a bit of an eccentric.  In a move that was unusual at the time, she journeyed alone in 1959, and captured her travels on her trusty Rolleiflex camera, in Egypt, Bangkok, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, Italy,  Indonesia and beyond.

She took hundreds of thousands of photographs, but she never showed them to anyone.

She collected binders and filled them with newspaper clippings; she amassed a large collection of books on photography.

Vivian has been described as aloof, and perhaps it was this aloofness that enabled her to capture the images she did. I picture her slinking into a crowd and remaining unseen, allowing her to snap moments in time that the average person may miss in a blink.

Her photographs, like her life, leave you with questions.

Who are these people? Did they know they were being photographed? Where were they going? What were they thinking?

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

I love that Vivian photographed all elements of society, from fur-wearing rich dames to scruffy, dirty-clothes-wearing children. The faces of these people are black, white, old, young, lined, untroubled, calm, agitated.

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

The best photography hits you in your heart. You don’t need to be an expert in composition to know that these photographs that the mysterious Vivian Maier took are simply stunning. Through her, we are given a glimpse into American life fifty years ago. Vivian makes this time come alive, makes you gasp at the beauty that can be found on a downtown street.

Copyright Maloof Collection

It’s no surprise to hear that John Maloof has become totally dedicated to preserving the work of Vivian Maier. He and Anthony Rydzon spend four to five days a week scanning her negatives on expensive equipment that John bought himself – but it will take years for their work to be complete.

The two men are currently working on a book and film about Vivian, and have set up a Kickstarter fund to raise money. Thanks to them, Vivian’s work has an audience that she may never have dreamed of.

Of course, the fact that Vivian was so private begs the question: would she want her work made public like this?

This excerpt from a tape recording made by Vivian provides, for me, the answer:

“Well I suppose nothing is meant to last forever; we have to make room for other people, it’s a wheel. You get on and you get off at the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to get to the end and so on.”

Beauty is truth, truth beauty. But perhaps mystery is the most beautiful of all.

Vivian Maier’s photography will be shown at the London Street Photography exhibition from 7 – 17 July 2011.

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Stop all this rampant casual pill-popping wanton humping, for God's sake...

In yesterday’s Irish Independent rambo-catholic David Quinn sought to portray himself as a martyr for free speech. Whilst he demonised women for seeking the morning after pill in Boots (preferring restraint or chastity!) Quinn also whined to high heaven about being the victim of repressive feminazis on Twitter. Poor Dave! Apparently some had the cheek to define his views on women’s control over their own bodies as ‘medieval’. He also claimed he’d been insulted and called a cunt. He scrambled about in the dark for 40 dazed seconds wondering ‘how we ever got to a point where there’s even a demand for a product like this’. The word demand here of course meaning a desire for sex outside of a committed relationship, such as a deluxe married one. There are no offers of stats accompanying this ancillary demand. Rather, he seems to have taken the product name: ‘Morning After Pill’ to heart, like Head & Shoulders shampoo could mean decapitation to a psycho. Availability of such a product will simply encourage the easily swayed fairer sex to indulge in quick-fix hot rampant park-n-ride humping at a moment’s notice.

The type of woman Dave sees wanting this pill: ‘Young, single women who were out on the tear over the weekend.’ Why don’t you just call them ‘slags’ and be done with it, someone snapped back on Twitter. Women scrambling for this €45 ‘abortifacient’ offering − in David’s comely eyes a kind of preemptive breakfast muffin termination − doesn’t seem to include 30 or 40-something women like me dealing with a burst condom scenario. Sorry Dave, but I do tend to like it a bit frantic and it’s happened twice, or a married woman worried her ordinary pill may not work after a bout of sickness/diarrhoea. And a myriad of other situations where emergency contraception is needed, including in cases of sexual assault. Imagine in the dark old days if such a service was available to women, especially young women who fell pregnant through incest, rape and abuse. And don’t say those scenarios were rare! If there was a morning after pill in 1983, for instance, maybe the young woman who died giving birth in that dreadful desolate place at Granard might never have been put in such a lethal position.

Instead, P for Pill in the Quinn context seems to spell PROMISCUITY to a congregation of tunnel visioners. He refers to pro-contraception folk as ‘moralising anti-moralisers’. It’s an inversion of the truth to portray those on the liberal side of the sexuality debate as the newfound ‘old right’. Such a dishonest move turns all logic and meaning on its head. ‘The problem with your thesis is that you want to legislate for an aspirational society that doesn’t, and may never, exist,’ another twitterer responded. Nor does he mention anywhere in his quickie-porridge-oats analysis, health concerns or issues surrounding the actual taking of the morning after pill. Even that would be a type of progress or perceptibility. He prefers to finger-wag at the female sexual gambol, citing that ‘demand can only be high where there is a high level of self-defeating, self-destructive behaviour’.

I seem to recall similar fears about the potential for mass-hysteria triggered divorces back in 1997 too. And God forbid if we should ever have abortion available in Ireland, we’ll be dashing out to get preggers just for the Nilfisk novelty of it all. While I’m all for the I Believe In Talking Snakes lobby having their divine say, it’s worth remembering that concrete church & state roadblocks obstructing liberalism began to crumble back in the late-1980s, when contraception became more freely available here in all its ambrosial forms. So the marauding tart tanked up on cheap booze and gagging for it without any prior contraception sorted, is tired nugatory nonsense. Coincidentally this change in our society arrived around the same time news broke in the international press of rampantly repressed Irish clergy brutally raping children on an industrial scale. Here’s hoping Boots launch a 2011 Here Cum The Girls campaign, with two for the price of one thrown in for good measure. In the meantime you can read Dave’s latest sermon here − I’m off out to buy some lube and jump on the first cock I see.

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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The Father Ted Night on Channel 4 over ‘The Christmas’ was a great treat.  What a pity though, that we didn’t hear from Pauline McLynn but apparently she doesn’t like being identified with Mrs. Doyle anymore and so declined to take part.  Fair enough, but she was missed.

Mrs. Doyle was a huge element in the success of Father Ted.  Her caricature portrayal of the archetypal Priests Housekeeper was hilarious.  Along with proffering endless cups of tea to the priests she also demanded that all visitors to the Parochial House took a cuppa too, with her famous “go on, go on, go on.  You will, you will, you will”. What I found especially hilarious was the way Mrs Doyle also repaired the roof and undertook all manner of DIY tasks in the house, often coming a cropper in the process.

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of my ‘retiring’ from the world of work, where I was PRO for a national charity to become a… well I don’t know what I became… a housewife (but I married a man not a house), homemaker (but I’m not a builder), stay-at-home mom (but I do a lot more than stay at home) after 22 years in the workforce I walked away to embrace my new job description which was not that unlike Mrs Doyle’s.  After years of pretending that we shared the domestic chores equally, I took on all tasks relating to the home and children (with the exception of repairing the roof).  He confined his energy to ‘bringing home the bacon.’  This brought a definite sense of relief for both of us.  No more rows about whose job was the more important and therefore who should take time off when one of the children were sick.  No more ‘contracts’ about housework and the weekly shopping.  Oh no.  Now our roles were clearly defined and very traditional.  We both felt very much that we were doing the right thing and generally still do.

I take my role as a homemaker/housewife/stay at home mom, just as seriously as any of the other jobs I have had over the years.  I work hard. Unlike any of my former jobs, this one comes with no salary (now I share his), no status, limited perks and little thanks.  Like my previous jobs, there are some times that are far busier than others.

In my last job (as PRO for a national charity), my busiest time was in March and April in the lead up to our national fundraising day.  By the time the day itself arrived I was exhausted and so always arranged for time off immediately afterwards. Nowadays, my busiest time is in the lead up to Christmas.  Weeks of running about with lists in my head culminates in cooking the big dinner for eight on the day itself.  And of course I am not alone.  There are many thousands of us, mostly women who have done likewise.  How wise therefore were our grandmothers and great grandmothers who decided that the official last day of Christmas should also mark ‘Nollaig na mBan’ or Women’s Christmas.  This was traditionally a day when the men waited on the women who had worked so hard over Christmas.

I am delighted that this old custom is seeing something of a revival recently with groups of women gathering on January 6th for a meal out or a coffee in the morning.  I hope to honour my inner Mrs Doyle and my maternal lineage by gathering some of my own female friends on Thursday for a chat and a cuppa.  I shall send them a text message which will end with the immortal words “go on, go on, go on, you will, you will, you will.”

Barbara Scully is a writer, Reiki therapist and full-time mother to 3 daughters who range in age from 23 to 10 years.  She is also slave to four cats and master of one not very bright dog.  She is a regular contributor to East Coast FM’s Morning Programme and is on Twitter: @aurora111

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