Remembering The Great War’s fallen Irish through art

Artist Holly Mullarkey interviewed

THE CENTENARY of the First World War has prompted many commemorations of, and fresh reflections on, that vast and cataclysmic conflict. Here in Ireland it has occasioned a reclaiming of the history of the many thousands of Irishmen who served and died in the war and whose stories had largely been erased from official memory until recent years.

On Friday September 19, the Norman Villa Gallery hosts the opening of a powerful and moving new exhibition by Holly Mullarkey, Merged Forever Into Clay, which seeks to express and expiate the hidden collective grief in the loss of those thousands of young Irishmen.

Holly’s grand-uncle, Thomas O’Halloran, died at Ypres, aged 21, after just three weeks at the front. Like so many others, his body lay interred in the mud where it fell. The absence of his body and of a headstone to mark his remains inspired Holly to seek a tangible link with the Great War fallen. This link evolved as a series of death masks through which Holly felt she could honour their suffering and put their memory to rest.

The artist used porcelain to symbolise the fragility of human life and how easily it is destroyed by war. At the same time the death mask is a traditional way of honouring the memory of the dead. Their suffering is made visible in the mask.

“I never heard it spoken of ever, growing up,” Holly says of her grand-uncle’s fate. “I only learned about it 10 years ago from an aunt. Three of my grand-uncles, Thomas, Jimmy, and Johnny all fought in the war, Thomas was in the Scots Guards and 800 men from Clare died in the conflict.

“Grand-uncle Jim came back with shrapnel in his lungs and in the 1950s all his shop windows were broken in Ennis. It was called ‘the English house’ because he’d fought in the war. When I found out about Thomas I decided I wanted to do something to commemorate him and express the collective grief about such a great loss, 49,000 Irish died over all.”

The fragility of soldiers’ lives

Holly goes on to outline the inspiration behind using death masks in the exhibition.

“I’m very influenced by Carl Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious,” she begins. “I wanted to connect with my grand-uncle and the war dead and the idea that came to me was to do it through clay, because I love clay. Clay holds memory, we come from clay and we return to clay.”

The last remark echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Clay is the word and clay is the flesh’ from 'The Great Hunger' and Mairtin O’Cadhain’s Cré Na Cille. However it is the war poets who are her chief inspirations, especially Francis Ledwidge and Wilfred Owen, from whom she found the resonant line ‘his whole face kissed the mud’ (from Owen’s The Last Laugh ).

“I made three sets of death masks,” Holly continues. “In one I am putting the dead to sleep. That set has closed eyes. The second set has weeping eyes symbolising the gas that burned the soldiers’ eyes and also the metaphor of being blinded and executed because those battles were mass executions, men were just machine-gunned down. Also, they were blind going there in not knowing what they were entering.

“The third set is without eyes and without a personal ‘I,’ representing a collective mythic level, a figure who died in the war now no longer identifiable as an individual. Through the three levels of the death mask I try to capture the personal, the woundedness, the fragility.

“Porcelain is my chosen clay, it’s very sensitive, it holds the memory of every touch. Each face in the exhibition has a wound. In some way it’s about all wars and expresses that tension between the beauty of the human being and the destruction of that beauty.”

A video lament

Another major source of inspiration is Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoighre’, a profound expression of grief for the loss of a beloved. Holly composed a lament for her grand-uncle, and her daughter, Anna Mullarkey, of the band My Fellow Sponges, composed music for this. Mia Mullarkey, another daughter, of Ishka Films made an installation video using this composition. The video shows Agallamh Cré, a collective of three women ceramists Ann O’Neill, Zeneb Maghrebi, and Holly, expressing feminine grief in the form of ritual vessel making.

“Caoineadh Art Uí Laoghaire is one of my favourite poems,” Holly declares. “This poem expresses a woman’s grief for the loss of the man she loved and it made me think that we needed a caoineadh for the 49,000 whose loss was unexpressed. Their bodies didn’t come back, there was no-one to bury. Part of the exhibition is a video installation with Agallamh Cré.

“I invited two other artists to join me to do something around collective feminine grief because it was the mothers and the lovers who were bereft of all these men. Myself and sculptors Ann O’Neill and Zeneb Maghrebi make a vessel, a ‘sacred grief’ vessel.

“The video portrays us making the vessel to the soundtrack of the caoineadh sung by Anna Mullarkey. The caoineadh is written to my grand-uncle by two women who miss him, his mother and an imagined lover. The chorus goes ‘Cé a bhéas ag suí liom sa seipéal, Cé a bhéas ag suil liom sa margadh’ (‘who will sit with me in the church, who will walk with me in the marketplace’ ). The caoineadh expresses the emptiness after war and the loss.”

Holly says of her sculptor- collaborators: “Zeneb is a poet, I’ve known her for a long time. She recently completed a degree in ceramics. Ann’s background is in nursing but she also did a degree in ceramics. We formed a group called Agallamh Cré for this show to make this vessel. In therapeutic language the therapist is offering containment and the vessel offers containment for this shared, unspoken, grief.”

The video installation is a hauntingly affective piece and a centre-piece of what promises to be a memorable exhibition. A native of Ennis, Holly Mullarkey received a first class honours BA in fine art ceramics from GMIT in 2012 for which she won Student of the Year Award.

Her interest in art has spanned her long teaching career. She has delivered the Visual Arts Primary Curriculum to teachers nationally and provided in-service training in the visual arts, particularly in relation to special education. Her interest in art includes installation film work and art as therapy. I ask her how she compares being an art teacher to being a practising artist.

“I went back to art college in 2011 into the fourth year of a ceramic degree,” she replies. “I’d been in the museum in Dublin and realised the memory of the human race is held in clay when I saw ancient ceramic shards and that inspired me to study clay. Art, and especially clay, is great for connecting with the past, it gives you that possibility.

“Being a teacher is easier than being an artist. As a teacher you’re in a creative dialogue with another human being, As an artist you’re in a creative dialogue with the medium you’re working in but you’re very alone.

“It’s very hard sometimes to find the concept that encapsulates what you’re trying to say and maybe even to find out what you’re trying to say. I found the anxiety hard but my husband Jim [himself a fine short story writer] has been really supportive and is doing the carpentry work to contain some of the pieces.”  

Merged Forever Into Clay runs at the Norman Villa Gallery in Salthill until Saturday October 4. The exhibition will be opened by Dr Máirin Ní Nualláin, a Jungian psychoanalyst, at 6pm on Friday September 19.


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