Paula Stokes with ‘1845: Memento Mori’ in St Patrick’s Hall at Dublin Castle.

‘Artists can help to avert climate disaster’: Robinson

Former President opens Navan glassmaker's installation in Dublin Castle

An exhibition by a Navan artist described as a juxtaposition of how the powerful dealt with the powerless has opened in Dublin Castle.

Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, officially opened ‘1845: Memento Mori’, a memorial installation by glassmaker Paula Stokes, dedicated to the Great Irish Famine, in St Patrick’s Hall at the castle.

The stark, simple banquet table which holds the inedible crop of 1,845 hand-blown, ghostly white glass potatoes created by the Seattle-based Navan native is laden with symbolism and meaning in a location that served as the centre of opulence and power at a time of starvation, mass emigration and misery outside its gates in the nineteenth century.

At the opening, Paula described the piece as an artistic response to a major historical event that has shaped our identities as Irish people.

“We all carry its legacy in us - those who live in Ireland, and those of us, like myself, who have emigrated,” she said.

She explained that the central theme is about food and our relationship with it.

“We all need food to live,” she continued. “But food is so much more than that alone. Sharing food is an act of generosity and hospitality; making food is a creative act; and also is a means to express our individual cultures. At its most corrupted, controlling food can be used as an act of oppression, and we know that only all too well in our own history, and in contemporary times.

Stokes said that exhibiting 1845: Memento Mori in Dublin Castle is powerful and really poignant as it was the seat of British Government until independence a century ago, and where during the Famine decisions were made about what to do - or what not to do - to help.

Exhibition curator Dr Myles Campbell pointed out that the room hosting the exhibition - St Patrick’s Hall - is rich in symbols of wealth, power and prosperity, and was the centre of elite social life in Ireland prior to Independence, where the nobility and gentry gathered each winter to dine and dance as guests of the viceroy, who represented the British monarch in Ireland.

“So much of the artistic symbolism reflects and Irish identity mediated through the prism of British rule,” he stated. “Towering over the room are three vast ceiling paintings that chart the history of British presence in Ireland. With gold sovereigns and luscious ripe fruit, the paintings depict a vision of Anglo-Irish partnership and prosperity.”

But, he added, it was a painful truth at that time that when Irish society was dancing the nights away in St Patrick’s Hall, the landscape outside the castle gates was being stalked by disease and death.

He quoted Meath woman Anna, Baroness Bellew, who wrote in 1849: “It was odd to see so splendid a scene in a land of famine and misery.”

Paula Stokes work on display in this hall now evokes the largely separate land of famine and misery that existed beyond the castle gates, and where once the poorest in our history were on the outside, they have now being welcomed in, Dr Campbell said.

Through glowing light on glass illuminating a darkened room, Paula Stokes gives viewers an invitation to remember that those who died once lived - and the installation takes on unexpectedly a life affirming quality, serving not only as a memento mori, but also as a momento vivre, a reminder of life, added the curator.

Mary Robinson, who was President of Ireland when the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine was marked from 1995 to 1997, said that she can’t help see parallels between the injustice of how greenhouse gas emissions from the industrialised fossil fuel-based world are aggravating the climate shocks, poverty and now the hunger in the poorest countries, the poorest communities, small island states, and indigenous peoples.

“We need artists to step up now and portray where we are,” she suggested.

“And do it in a positive way. Somehow to get us to feel the emotional depth, use the symbols, like the ghostly glass potatoes here that evoke the Famine of 177 years ago. That’s what we need. Statistics don’t move people. Political speech doesn’t move people. They have to be moved from the heart. It is artists that can really move us.

“This has to become an issue for everyone personally, in Ireland and in every country. A very personal effort is needed in transforming behaviour change to contribute. In itself, it’s not going to be enough. We have to change the bigger picture. But it’s a way of creating a moral force for change by taking positive acts ourselves, individually.

“The artists can lift this. They can find that inner ear that speaks to us as this exhibition has spoke to us,” President Robinson said.

“Paula Stokes has both connected and commemorated the Famine in a very special way and reminded us of our own responsibility now to avert catastrophe and work for that better future,” concluded Mrs Robinson, who served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights following her presidency.

*1845: Memento Mori by Paula Stokes, Dublin Castle State Apartments until 23rd August, open daily 9.45am to 5.45pm, last admission at 5.15pm.