AS ELECTION placards leer at us from every lamp-post, and vote-wheedling leaflets are daily stuffed through our letterboxes, The Kenny Gallery’s new exhibition of Irish political posters, flyers, and assorted ephemera from down the years, could hardly be more topical.
On the other hand, as Tom Kenny admits, some folk might think he’s a bit mad to mount such a show. After all, election posters have never been known for making imaginative visual statements or reflecting trends in art and graphic design – you will not find any Bauhaus FF posters from the 1920s or FG getting all psychedelic in the 1960s. Unlike posters for gigs, plays, or festivals, few bedroom walls can ever have been adorned with images of aspirant TDs.
Scanning the array of posters on show in Kenny's, largely drawn from the last 40 years or so, the vast majority look much the same as posters today - mugshot, strapline, party affiliation. Indeed regardless of party affiliation, it seems that, visually at least, we are all conservatives. There are, however, a few notable exceptions. Independent candidate Seamas O’Neill, from Dundrum, has a poster exhorting voters to ‘turn the system upside down’ complete with an upside-down image of his mugshot. Another striking poster for Fianna Fail’s Willie O’Dea replicates a full colour ‘Where’s Wally’ picture captioned with ‘Where’s Willy?’
The exhibition enables one to trace the progress of certain TDs as they slough off their political skin from one incarnation to the next. Here’s a flyer for Eamon Gilmore of the Workers Party, and who’s this over here on another poster, strolling serenely down the beach? Why it’s Eamon Gilmore again, now of Democratic Left.
Another serene stroller is none other than a smiling Alan Shatter, in jeans and with his jacket nonchalantly carried over his shoulder in a photo that looks like an album cover for some easy-listening country crooner. A slightly surreal cast to the poster is added by the presence of some Star Trek pics in a strained attempt at a visual pun between Shatter/Shatner. Clearly Alan did not miss his vocation when passing up a comedy career for the hurly burly of politics and the law.
The turmoil of the Northern conflict and its encroachment into Irish political life is attested to by Sinn Féin posters that relate to the Hunger Strike and assert Republican positions, sometimes by attacking the establishment parties; one bears the message ‘Fianna Fail, the party of extradition’ the words emblazoned against a full colour Union Jack. As well as posters and flyers there are badges, key-rings, stickers and even a party political sliotar – from that man Alan Shatter again!
The majority of the material in the exhibition has been provided by avid collector Alan Kinsella, from Dublin, while Tom Kenny has drawn on his own store of memorabilia for items pertaining to Galway elections (a highlight is a photo from 1981 of Michael D Higgins with his wife Sabina surrounded by a legion of supporters celebrating his first election to the Dáil ). While Kinsella started off collecting posters, leaflets, etc, just from Dublin, his passion and thoroughness has seen him enlist the aid of people around the country to send him in material from other constituencies. Indeed, Kinsella is possibly the only person in Ireland who does not chuck political flyers straight into his bin. He is not the only Irish person however to have been a keen collector of such material - none other than Bishop Jeremiah Newman shared this passion.
While the assorted posters and other literature might not set one’s aesthetic pulse racing, Tom Kenny makes the valid point that they are fascinating items of social history in their own right, and many people will certainly enjoy browsing the exhibits he has gathered for this show. Ireland’s growing sexual liberalisation is illustrated by, on the one hand, a poster for a conservative Christian candidate from the 1970s with the slogan “Yes to jobs, No to condoms” while another exhibit actually includes a condom-containing envelope bearing the legend “Labour did this”.
There is no shortage of fascinating stuff here to gratify any political junkies out there and the exhibition runs right up to polling day and beyond.