Around 80 people thronged Athlone’s Civic Offices to protest against Fine Gael councillor Mark Cooney’s motion that a state-owned artwork be removed from the Luan Gallery at this week’s Athlone Town Council meeting.
Shane Cullen’s artwork Fragmens sur le Institutions Republicaines IV consists of short communications between hunger strikers and their families in 1981 and smuggled out on cigarette papers from Long Kesh.
The Sinn Fein organised protest was attended by many non-political people who support the arts, including Rhona Quigley from Glasson.
She was “hoping that the council will have the sense not to censor art, not to censor what I as a citizen of Athlone want to see in my own gallery. I don’t need Mark Cooney telling me what I’m supposed to be looking at.”
Frances Kawala travelled from Birr, County Offaly saying councillors “are not qualified to do this. We have freedom of opinion and expression”.
Placards were banned from the public gallery but protestors carried signs saying ‘Hands off our art’ and some referred to Fine Gael’s early associations with fascism and the Blueshirt movement connected with the party’s first president Eoin O’Duffy.
Cllr Cooney said the Luan Gallery is very good for Athlone, but his own father Paddy Cooney (who was Minister for Justice between 1974 and 1977 ) was “agitated” by Mr Cullen’s work.
The piece is offensive to the families of the families of those who suffered during the Troubles, he said.
Cllr Gabrielle McFadden agreed, saying all art that is political should be removed from all publically funded galleries.
A handful of people clapped when she said she absolutely objects to the artwork, particularly because of the death of Moate soldier Private Paddy Kelly during an IRA kidnapping incident.
Cllr Paul Hogan said the council should never stand over censorship, which is against the constitution and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
He said the eyes of the world are on Athlone, wondering how the town council wouldn’t display a piece of art bought with Irish taxes.
Cllr Kieran Molloy said he didn’t think the council should tell the gallery what they can or can’t put up.
“If that’s the case, if someone objects to anything, it’ll be back before us again and it shouldn’t be,” he said.
Eventually Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne’s counter-proposal was accepted by six votes to three that Cllr Cooney’s motion be forwarded to the Luan Gallery board for consideration.
Shane Cullen was “very shocked” by Cllr Cooney’s proposal, and said the artwork has been displayed all over the world, including in Belfast, Derry, and Portadown with no requests for it to be removed.
Mr Cullen, who has also made art about the Good Friday Agreement, questioned an unhealthy ‘climate of fear’ where artists are afraid to deal with certain subjects because it might interfere with their funding.