by Peter Byrne
(Swans - June 18, 2007) Although surely there's an academic theorist somewhere who has caught them in bed together, imperialism and bold contemporary art might seem an odd couple. In fact they both have become targets for smug and bumptious clichés. The Royal Hospital Kilmainham outside Dublin can just now make us more careful with our words. Contemporary art can be good or bad with all the gradations between. Imperialism isn't a word we should use like a sledgehammer to flatten thought. Sloganeering can be offensive to the men and women who have suffered the dramas of recent centuries. No to empire, of course. It would be hard to think otherwise in the ebullient, never before so self-confident and prosperous, independent Republic of Ireland. The little nation of 4 million (there are 1.5 million in Northern Ireland, finally at peace), which was a fount of Diaspora for countless generations, now receives immigrants from the ends of the earth. The irony is that without them it probably couldn't function as a modern community snugly integrated in the European Union.
The Royal Hospital at Kilmainham has never had much to do with medicine. Like the Invalides in Paris, and the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, Kilmainham served as a rest home for military men back from the wars. Just as Bruant and Mansart's creation by the Seine and Christopher Wren's by the Thames, Kilmainham, set near the Liffey, is an architectural splendor. Formal gardens of French inspiration adorn its approaches. The Irish government has restored the buildings and grounds, making them the home of the Irish Museum of Modern Art -- become the IMMA, perhaps to conjure up some of the glamour of Manhattan's MOMA. However, despite its double-Ms, Kilmainham still has no permanent collection of any weight. Other Dublin venues have done a better job of displaying modern and contemporary work, notably the jewel-box Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane.
The infant IMMA has consequently resorted to a policy of housing traveling exhibitions that have sometimes been memorable and often socially relevant: Barry Flanagan, Michael Craig-Martin, Louis le Brocquy in 2006; Lucien Freud, Georgia O'Keefe, Joan Miro and Alexander Calder in 2007. There's no narrow nationalism in this ex-colony. Dublin was built in elegant Georgian style -- those are the British King Georges -- as a seat of imperial power. The Protestant, British-derived ascendancy produced Irish cultural masterpieces in the invader's language (Swift, Sheridan, Wilde, Yeats, O'Casey, Shaw, Beckett), and for that matter often led political revolts against London (Wolfe Tone, Grattan, Emmet, Parnell, Hyde, Casement). No wonder James Joyce laughed chauvinism down the river Liffey into the sea.
As a modern art gallery, then, the IMMA can't be said to have found its way. It opened the year with some half-hearted and vacuous installation art whose anemia was only underlined by the beauty of the rooms it tried to fill. Amid this blankness the visitor was brought up sharp by a historical exhibit on the Dublin Fusiliers. It's as if the IMMA felt that the art on hand didn't make the cut and that it was politically prudent to give the public something solid to chew on by way of a heritage section. Otherwise that same public might conclude that all these arty gimmicks were simply a drain on the public purse.
The story of the Dublin Fusiliers turns out to be anything but local history. It's as large as the world, as large as imperialism. It's all about flesh and blood -- often maimed -- and the strange byways ordinary people can end up in. It's about the intricacies of history. The Dublin Fusiliers were founded in 1644 as a private army to protect the commercial interests of the British East India Company. In other words, colonized Irishmen, then known as the Bombay and Madras European Regiments, were securing the British Empire in India. They saw action in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (now seen in that country as the first step toward Indian independence). Likewise in the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. In WWI they lost 4,777 men in action in France and at Gallipoli. Of the 1,012 men from the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers who went ashore in the Dardanelles, only eleven survived. A note on the exhibit tells us:
Leaving thousands of their fallen comrades behind buried beneath the beaches of Gallipoli and the mud of Picardy and Flanders, those doubtful eyes [of the survivors] returned to an Ireland that had utterly changed. Many had gone to war at the request of their democratically elected political leaders. Their sacrifice was largely forgotten in the excitement of a new independent Ireland.
One can imagine the consternation of these exhausted workhorses of the Empire, limping back to the tumult of the young Republic. In Dublin's Heuston Station, which figured in the rebellion against Britain, a plaque commemorates a hundred employees of the Great Western Railway (great by island standards) who died in WWI. Those who survived found the station's name changed to honor a rebel of the 1916 Easter Rising whose patriotism they may well have shared if they hadn't been busy fighting Germans and Turks.
In 1922 the Royal Irish Fusiliers were disbanded. We can sing along today to their rousing The Dublin Fusiliers, enjoying its bravado and forgetting for a moment the human waste of war. The song jokes about a British force raised from the colonized Irish to fight off the Romans who had come to colonize Great Britain.
The time that Julius Caesar tried to land down at Ringsend
The coastguards couldn't stop them, so for the Dublins they did send,
And just as they were landing, lads, we heard three ringing cheers:
"Get back to Rome like blazes here's the Dublin Fusiliers."
1922 also saw the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham turned over to the young Republic. Since 1680 the Hospital had stood in green fields. Today billboards around it announce "a new dawn -- a new vision." We are urged to "live, work, enjoy," as if public relations men, having created life, work, and enjoyment were offering them for sale. There's even a garish drawing, big as a house, portraying "an exciting new development with residential and commercial opportunities." It's an ugly cliff of glass surrounding Kilmainham Hospital and exploiting its dignified beauty and somber past as the new middle-class suburb's "feature." Kilmainham will be like a piece of pre-Columbian sculpture in the courtyard of a shopping mall. In some countries they don't build on ancient burial grounds. Couldn't Ireland respect all those amputated limbs?
Surely it's time for any remaining Irish anti-imperialists to update their war cries and direct their big rhetorical guns at homegrown property developers. Something like: "Sons of Erin, you've drowned the invaders in your atavistic nightmares. Now throw off your chains and clamp them on the speculators." In their time the recuperating veterans were issued three pints of beer a day. Let's lift our glasses, non-dialectically, to the Dublin Fusiliers.
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