'Designers offer clients the chance to interrogate the purpose of their endeavours.' As part of the Map Irish Design project for the 100 Archive, Elaine McDevitt writes for Culture about the contribution being made by Ireland's design community to the ongoing Decade of Centenaries.
In January 2020, plans to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary met with unparalleled levels of public debate. The proposed memorialisation of the RIC might not have clashed so much with public opinion, had it not been for the existence of the notoriously brutal group of reinforcements, the Black and Tans. The plans, soon abandoned, proved greatly out of touch with the zeitgeist and the Wolfe Tone's rebel song Come Out Ye Black and Tans, even climbed the Irish, UK and Australian charts.
What the public debate best displayed was the resurgence of interest in the history of 100 years ago through the Decade of Centenaries and how emotive some of that history still is. It exemplified how connected commemoration is to identity, belonging and public consciousness.
Historian Brian Hanley questioned in a recent Second Captains podcast ‘Can history be good at reconciliation?’. Within the 100 Archive project, centenaries are directly commemorated or conceptually referenced — suffrage, worker’s rights, 1916, WW1 and the first meeting of Dáil Éireann all make an appearance. Designers offer clients the chance to interrogate the purpose of their endeavours - so, how have they addressed and reconciled the complex histories of these issues, many of which formed the building blocks of contemporary Ireland?
The Dublin Tenement Experience, at No. 14 Henrietta Street, offers visitors the chance to learn about the 1913 lockout and those who struggled at the time, providing a picture of life in Dublin in the years preceding the 1916 Rising, with an identity designed by Red Dog. BigO created a digital projection illustrating key historical events that took place at the time. John Cooke, whose photographs formed the backbone of the piece, condemned the tenements in the 1914 Report into the Housing Condition. Over a century later and the ‘Housing Condition’ reached crisis point again.
World War 1 emerges within the 100 Archive as an example perhaps of how history can be good at reconciliation, with the lived experience of those involved taking centre stage. RTÉ developed a visual identity, multifaceted campaign and a one-day event on the theme WW1 100 Years that drew strongly on first-hand accounts, presenting a fascinating glimpse, not just into the war itself but the lives surrounding it. The aftermath of war is dealt with very directly by theatre piece SHOCKS, submitted by One Strong Arm, whilst the complexities surrounding the returned Irish soldiers were commemorated in Land’s Portraits of the Invisible.
It’s the events surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising that are reflected most robustly within the 100 Archive, with a significant contribution from State, civic, cultural and commercial sectors. RTÉ again worked on a multi-platform identity that would engage with a diverse audience, as well as RTÉ Road To The Rising, a live event attended by nearly 100,000 people, for which they commissioned design in-house and externally.
As with the housing crisis, some of the issues from a century ago form quite the remarkable circle with contemporary politics and social concerns. This is evidenced particularly in relation to suffrage and how its centenary was bookmarked by the 2018 referendum on the regulation of termination of pregnancy. These two battles for women’s rights were marked separately and together by Irish designers.
The National Print Museum hosted 'Print, Protest and The Polls: The Irish women’s suffrage campaign and the power of print’. As part of the exhibition, responses were invited from contemporary letterpress practitioners Mary Plunkett, Dave Darcy and Jamie Murphy, honing in on this same provision of a voice for women. Katie Kidd and Avril Delaney drew direct inspiration from the ‘Votes for Women’ call of the suffrage movement in their Vote for Women campaign for reproductive rights. They created a film, distributed a zine and held a fundraising exhibition all to highlight the referendum and encourage people to get on the voting register.
The first public meeting of Dáil Éireann is commemorated with a series of An Post Centenary Stamps by WorkGroup and the website Dáil100 by Each&Other, that houses a breadth of content, both archive and new, designed to drive public engagement. From Ballots to Bullets charted these events as a series, depicting momentous events such as women’s suffrage, the global flu pandemic, the key general election of 1918, the first meeting of Dáil Eireann and ends with the first shots fired in the War of Independence. Ireland who started 1918 fighting alongside Britain is now fighting against it.
That conflict, a most sensitive of subjects, will preoccupy the next stage of the Decade of Centenaries. Historian Mary McAuliffe, writing about the recent plans to commemorate the RIC, stated ‘We need to commemorate these men and women, in all their complexities. History and society deserve that ... We can only hope the government takes more care and consideration in its commemorative efforts into the coming years.’
We see in the 100 Archive how history can indeed be ‘good at reconciliation’ and how designers have interrogated and engaged with the complexities. Conscious and respectful of the civic and political agency of national identity and cultural representation, they have memorialised the events of the past and given voice to its people.
Elaine McDevitt is an experienced research, awards and events professional who previously led the Institute of Creative Advertising & Design (ICAD). She was lead researcher on Map Irish Design.