My fortnight of culture

famine

Having spent the past fortnight as any good superhero would – fighting evil and the causes of evil, within the court system; I have been remiss in maintaining this blog. This was deliberate – I took my responsibilities as a juror in a criminal trial, quite seriously. Thus I wanted to maintain a radio silence. Owing to my habit of babbling, I thought it would be wiser, in case after a glass of Blue Nun I would splurge details of the trial, and end up in the slammer for contempt of court.

That is not to say however that I have been living the life of a hermit. The Criminal Court of Justice is in the city centre. It is within easy reach of many museums and galleries. Seeing as I have been on a semi-mission to become more dedicated to cultural pursuits, I decided to avail of this opportunity if possible.

Early in the trial, we were dismissed one afternoon at only 2.30pm – for a legal issue . This is where the barristers need to discuss something with the judge. The jury is not permitted to hear this, as we are limited to hearing evidence.  The afternoon stretched before me. I decided to take a stroll into the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History next door, in Collins’ Barracks. The building itself is a former British military barracks when Britain ruled Ireland, and when Dublin was the second city of the empire. It is vast, and its existence is the reason why the street outside – Benburb Street up to the Monto at the top of Abbey Street was at one time the largest red light district in the world.

I lived outside the barracks on the quays about twenty years ago – just as the area was starting to gentrify. However the old atmosphere of centuries previously was still in evidence. The horse market at Smithfield Square occurred once a month; and it was difficult to leave the apartment building without being accosted by a hollow-eyed woman, asking me if I was ‘looking for business’. Since the tramline was installed early this century, the gentrification has intensified, and the street is now a gleaming emblem of glass fronted capitalism. I used to visit the museum on my days off. Museum entrance is free, so why wouldn’t I?

Today I was not interested in visiting the main museum however – instead I wanted to visit the stables and a new building, housing the Asgard. The Asgard is a yacht owned by Irish nationalist Erskine Childers and was used for gun-running into Howth in 1914, as republican efforts to be free from British rule were intensifying.  The republicans were largely unarmed, and this yacht was used to bring German bought weapons into Ireland. It was an interesting display- I had heard of the Asgard, but was not fully aware of its history. It has been restored to gleaming perfection and is now open to the public.

Beside it, in the stables, is an exhibition to commemorate the 1916 Rising – the foolhardy attempt by republicans to declare an Irish Republic. Initially this uprising was unsupported by the majority of Irish people, and was quickly crushed by the superpower.  However the brutal manner in which the instigators were executed for their participation, turned public opinion in their favour. The doomed rising led to the Irish War of  Independence and ultimately the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.  I know quite a bit about this subject, but for people who want an introduction to the topic this place is worth seeing.

I had been informed by a friend that the Arbor Hill Cemetery just outside the barracks was a place worth visiting. The cemetery is located in the grounds of the Church of the Sacred Heart – the official church of the Irish Defence Forces. It is the burial ground for the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising, and contains a massive marble monument on which is inscribed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which had been issued in 1916. It is a very serene place.

Beside the cemetery is Arbour Hill Prison – a still working jail that was built in 1848. Its nickname is ‘the Vatican’ as it is a prison where sex offenders are housed.

The trial continued. Unfortunately the early release from court was a solitary occurrence. No more opportunities for cultural exploration was possible. Until the last day of the trial, when the jury was thanked for our service, and dismissed.

After my release, I wandered up the quays, along the Liffey, to Dublin Castle. My mission – to see ‘Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger’.

This is the world’s largest collection of Famine-related art. It is on view for the first time in Ireland, on loan from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. The collection itself was adequate – the Famine is not a topic that seems to have inspired much great art. However the displays and videos accompanying the collection were chilling. It is an art exhibition telling the tale of the aftermath of the Potato Blight of 1845 to 1850 – The Famine or Great Hunger.

During that time, the potato was the sole foodstuff for the majority of the desperately impoverished population of Ireland. The failure of the potato crop on successive years, accompanied by the British government’s deliberate decision to let starvation solve the ‘Irish problem’ led to the death by starvation and disease of over a million, and the emigration on coffin ships of a further million to the US in those five years. The subsequent decades continued the exodus through emigration from Ireland. In 1842 the population of Ireland was 8.1 million. By 1882 the population of the country was only 4.2 million. At a time when the industrial revolution was rapidly increasing the population elsewhere in Europe, Ireland bucked the trend, going from Europe’s most densely to one of its least densely populated countries. Horribly sad and depressing, it is an exhibition worth seeing.

With a shiver down my spine, I left the display. And immediately stumbled across the ‘Revenue and Customs Museum’ – also within the grounds of Dublin Castle. What fresh horror was this. There is a museum of tax in Dublin? Nervously I entered, fearful that I would be mugged. It is not a particularly interesting place. I did chuckle at the dedication to the tax collectors of the nation who performed their duties to loyally, sometimes in great danger.

Then I remembered that tax is in fact a good thing – especially if everyone – including the mega-rich and the multinational corporations pay their fair share.

It is a good thing that I am not living in a country that has been repeatedly condemned as a tax haven, enabling corporations to launder billions of euros in profits, entirely tax free through our shores.

Oh wait.

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